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Best Laid Plans: Tools for Turning

[Guest blogger Nina Peterson is the COO and a partner at Wisdom Works. She last blogged about how optimism can engineer the future.]

It’s August: that time of year when many organizations are reforecasting. They are rethinking the year’s initiatives and results that didn’t come to fruition. Their old plans may be sinking, heading for a wall, or just not carrying them far or fast enough. Personally, I can relate. Two months ago I registered for a 10K benefit run, making plans to race, spend time with friends, and reach that celebratory finish line. Today it’s hardly what I had planned: my body has not healed enough for me to participate. No running, no walking, no 10K race. At first I felt this sensation of sinking, but then I learned to swim again.

In the business world, plans are the currency of success. Consider the bustling activity in the launch of a new product, the excitement of a promising merger, or the hopeful scrutiny of a new hire. We calculate the positive future and what we’ll do with the additional time, money, or market strength that will result. Then we engage ourselves fully in making it happen. That engagement is a huge asset—until our best laid plans don’t turn out the way we expected. Then that same dogged determination can be a weight that drags on us.

When our plans derail or fall short, we might look for someone or something to blame. Or we might rework the numbers and push harder. When my running plans broke down, I balked and sought a second, then third opinion. My chiropractor and physical therapist only confirmed (and actually strengthened) the prognosis: no running yet, no walking or biking even; swimming was my only choice for exercise. I met that news with sadness and frustration.

As leaders, disengaging from our projected future is not always easy. But the ability to make that turn is a leadership skill which makes a huge difference in our energy management and the sustainability of our efforts. So how can we untangle ourselves from attachment to one future, accept the present, and explore new possibilities? Here are a few practices leaders and organizations can use to support that turn:

  • After Action Review – after completing a project or meeting (or missing) a milestone, an AAR seeks to understand what happened and why, while gathering ideas for future improvements. The most valuable AARs include multiple perspectives: viewing the project from many different levels, angles, and interests. Whether a project met its expectations or not, this widened view allows leaders to articulate all the lessons learned.
  • Systems Thinking – This is a process of understanding how different elements influence each other in the bigger picture of an organization. When plans have not generated the results we imagined, it’s time to review our fundamental assumptions. Using systems thinking, we take a step back to reveal new variables—factors that can facilitate a new, more successful strategy.
  • Appreciative Inquiry – AI is an approach championed by so-called ‘positive revolutionaries.’ I’d certainly include myself in their ranks. We believe that leaders and their organizations are best served by identifying their existing assets, appreciating all that is best within them. Questions like ‘what is working?’ and ‘what strengths do you notice?’ can quickly change moods, enabling insight and fresh commitment.
  • Gratitude – Accepting the current state of things (appreciating where we are now and what we have in our favor) is a simple strategy for letting go of plans that did not come to fruition. In the hustle and bustle of pursuing our best laid plans, a return to gratitude provides a welcome reminder of the gifts of the current moment.

It was AI and gratitude that provided the turning point in my frustration over that 10K road race. What initially sounded like a “no-run, no-walk, no-bike” prognosis became a “you can still swim” outlook. I then recalled how, in previous injury recoveries, swimming had become a source of new strength. I got out all my swimming gear: goggles, waterproof radio, and the pull buoy. I studied the schedules, found times that fit, picked a lane, dropped in, and made the turn.

Photo by Scott Thieman