One of the somewhat hidden benefits of good planning process in a business is management accountability. And one of the problems that comes up, in organizations that introduce good planning process, is what I call the “Crystal Ball and Chain” problem. I’ve run into it several times as I’ve introduced the planning process into a new company or organization.
People in the organization sometimes fear business planning. In the background, the fear is related to accountability and commitment. Usually they don’t realize it. They state their objection as:
“But how can I possibly know today what’s going to happen six months from now? Isn’t that just a waste of time? Can’t it actually be counter-productive, because it distracts us, and we spend time trying to figure out things in the future?”
I’ve heard this from some people who really did seem to be worried about accountability and commitment, and I’ve heard it from some who were stars on the team, not worried at all about their own position, but legitimately worried about the best thing for management and getting work done.
The answer is that projecting future business activities isn’t a ball and chain at all, because in the right planning process the existence of the plan helps you manage effectively.
Here’s a concrete example: it’s September and you are developing your plan for next year, which includes an important trade show in April. You plan on that trade show and set up a budget for expenses related to that trade show. Even though it’s September, you have a pretty good idea that this will happen in April.
When January rolls around, though, it turns out that the trade show that normally takes place in April will be in June this year. Does that mean the plan was wasted time? Absolutely not! It is precisely because you have a plan running that you catch the change in January, move the expense to June, and adjust some other activities accordingly.
In this example, the plan isn’t a brick wall you run into or a ball and chain that drags you down; no, it’s a helpful tool, like a map or even a GPS device, because it helps you keep track of priorities and manage and adjust the details as they roll into view.
It’s normal for the crystal ball and chain to appear as an objection when a planning process is introduced. The solution is simply good management. The people involved in implementing the plan learn with time how regular plan review sessions help them stay on top of things, and when assumptions change, how the plan changes. Changes are discussed, nobody gets fired, and you have better management.
The underlying idea here is directly related to the paradox in a previous post: business plans are always wrong, but still vital to good management.