Monday, July 18, 2016

The Outmoded Long Term Contingency Plan Model is an Anachronism

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on………………"

The Futility of Old Planning Models:
Planning has become part of our DNA.  Strategic planning.  Budget planning.  Program planning.  Succession and transition planning.  You name it, we try to plan for it.

Obviously planning makes sense.  But, we have been brainwashed into the belief that we absolutely must have a detailed and long range plan for realizing our mission statements and making our organizations all those things we want them to be:  stable and sustainable; successful with capacity; grounded and capitalized.  We've even internalized the idea that we need to plan for those other things that we are all now expected to be:  adaptable, innovative, and flexible. And we have bought into the idea that for any plan to make sense it has to be of a minimal length, and involve specific and concrete steps for realizing stated goals.  It is heresy to suggest that there is a futility in our planning strategies.

In large part, we have embraced the idea that our plans need to be of a multi year period, with all the tasks necessary to realize our objectives spelled out (in detail) as to what has to be done, who will do it and on what timeline. The Gold standard use to be a five year plan. Even now a two or three year plan is the norm.

Nonsense.  Utter nonsense in today's world where the changes are so dynamic and fluid and come so quickly that it's folly to have long term plans with specificity as to how to move forward.  That whole notion is based on the idea that we can reliably and consistently predict precisely what is going to happen - with our audiences, product, funding, marketing, support and all the things - like technology - over which we have no control at all.

Current innovation theory and practice pretty much now accepts that flexibility and adaptability are integral, essential components of planning and that their embrace is premised on the idea that you can only do so much planning.  Unfortunately, too many arts organizations are still stuck in the outmoded past notion of long term strategic planning.

Goal Oriented Contingency Planning
The better approach to planning has two parts to it:  First, setting long and short term goals (with an emphasis on the long term goals - as the short term goals are really in furtherance of the long term ones), with some attention paid (as previously) to what has to be done to realize those goals - but without any great specificity except as to the process of how we arrive at our approach to the challenges.  The notion of being nimble and responsive to constantly changing environments and circumstances is now at the heart of planning. And then second, and this is very different from our past approach: creating a process to develop contingency plans to implement as possible responses when it turns out that we were wrong as to what has to be done to realize our goals. And that part of the planning process has to be where we are adaptable and flexible, having given some thought to what we do if things turn out differently than we anticipated and expected they would.  Because, it seems that the odds are more in favor of things turning out differently than we thought they might, than of them playing out just like we thought they would.  That's the reality.

Take our budgetary process.  In many quarters, we treat budgets like they are, once formulated, sacrosanct sacred cows that cannot be altered in any way.  Again, given today's realities, that is an utterly nonsensical approach.  For the most part, it is impossible for us to very accurately do much more that estimate what our income is likely to be.   Income is a goal.  What we need are contingency plans in place if we fail to meet our income projections, and that's where the specificity should lie.  And we need to have everybody on board with this kind of approach - staffs, boards, supporters, donors, funders, regulators et. al. to allow us to adapt and adjust to the changing landscapes on the financial plain.  On the expense side, we can be more specific, but even here we need to recognize the changing dynamics and position ourselves to fall back on contingent plans for errors in judgment in the prediction of expenditures, because even expenses aren't fixed anymore.

Our strategic plans, and our budgets, are currently based on guess work and speculation as much as hard and fast facts.  There is nothing wrong with guess work as that is the only real alternative.  But it seems counterproductive and harmful to ignore the reality of change and the resultant impossibility of knowing exactly how to get where we want to go.

So we ought to decide where we want to go - but with the understanding and acceptance that where we want to go is subject to dynamic change because of changing circumstances.  Once we have a framework of where we want to go, then we can adopt some (but only some) plans to get there, realizing that those strategies may be outdated, inappropriate and even useless as we attempt to move forward.  The real planning ought to be about the process of making contingency plans we need to make when things go in a very different direction than we envisioned.  And those contingency plans will best be centered around a process for adaptation and flexibility within the framework of a plan.

This doesn't mean we forsake long terms goals - both practical and specific and mission directed.  We ought to have long term objectives, but with the realization that try as we might to set down precisely what we will do to realize those goals, it isn't a science and it cannot be exact.  We ought not to worship too much at the altar of what is now an outdated model of planning and turn our attention to redefining what planning means.  Strategic must mean realistic as much as aspirational.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit