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Home > Blog > Why failing to plan really does mean planning to fail

Tuesday 17th Oct 2017

Why failing to plan really does mean planning to fail

I’ve no doubt you’ve come across Benjamin Franklin’s quote ‘If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail’ in some guise or other.

Maybe it was said to you as you prepared for an important presentation or project at work.

Maybe you’ve imparted this piece of wisdom to a new recruit or colleague.

Or maybe you’ve simply read the statement and thought; ‘yes, that’s obvious, it makes sense’ and left it at that.

I don’t believe anyone sets out planning to fail, but sometimes priorities (too many) or time (not enough) or self-discipline (lack of) results in our failing to plan which can make all the difference between an awesome victory and a tragic loss.

I’m often cited as saying success is 80% mindset & 20% strategy.

Yes, programming a winning mindset will get you far. It will power you to get back up after you’ve fallen, it will give you that determination to succeed and it will help build your resilience to keep going when it gets tough.

But let’s not underestimate strategy.

Strategy is about making sure you are in the driver’s seat with a clear vision of where it is you want to get to, why you want to go there, and how you’re going to turn your vision into reality.

failing to plan is like planning to fail

Planning will ease the bumps in the road, allow you to consider the choice points when they arise and force you to the take time to sit down and think about your future growth – of your business, of your people and of you, personally.

Put simply, you’re giving the 20% strategy a fighting chance to succeed.

A fascinating story which brings this point to life is the race to the South Pole in 1911 between the successful expedition led by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and the failed one led by Robert Falcon Scott.

On paper, it was a perfectly matched competition: Amundsen and Scott were of similar ages and each could boast plenty of experience in daring polar exploration. They set off within days of each other and it was reasonable to assume they might arrive simultaneously; such was their mutual reputation. But that’s not what happened at all.

Before I continue, let’s consider some of the hardships they would face: gale force winds, temperatures of -20F, even during the warmest months, and a round-trip journey of more than 1,400 miles. That would be a serious challenge today, even with all our modern equipment and expertise; it’s hard to comprehend how much harder it was in 1911.

Amundsen had been preparing for years however. He adopted an intensive and long-term fitness regimen. When he travelled more than 2,000 miles from Norway to Spain to earn a master’s certificate in sailing, he didn’t go by ship or train, but by bicycle. He planned for scenarios he might only face once in a lifetime, such as testing the usefulness of raw dolphin as a source of nutrition. He studied the Inuit people in the north of Canada and discovered how it was better to move slowly in frozen conditions so sweat couldn’t form and turn to ice. He was 39 when he set off on his journey to the South Pole, but he had already been on a journey to personal mastery from a tender age.

Scott’s preparation paled in comparison.

Significant differences in their planning emerged;

  • Amundsen learned that dogs thrive in Antarctic conditions and spent time with the Inuit people in the north of Canada to learn dogsledding. Scott selected a mixture of ponies, which are completely unsuited to Antarctic conditions and motor sledges, which were brand new, untested, and quickly failed. The result: while the Amundsen party ran their teams of dogs all the way to the pole and back, the men on Scott’s team had to pull their sleds themselves, moving far more slowly and exhausting themselves along the way.

  • Amundsen laid down supply caches along the route, and marked them with black flags so they would be visible for miles on their way back. Scott did not.
  • Amundsen stored three tons of supplies for five men starting out. Scott stored one ton for 17 men.
  • Amundsen carried enough extra supplies that he would be able to miss every one of his stock supplies and still complete the journey. If Scott missed even one of his stock supplies it would be the end for him and his team.
  • Amundsen brought four thermometers. Scott brought one, which broke.

While both men knew there was no way to remove all of the risk, Amundsen prepared for the very worst weather, unexpected geographical challenges and other hurdles, where Scott appears to have operated on hope that everything would work out all right. In his journal, discovered with his frozen body years later, Scott complained about his bad luck.

On 15 December 1911, Amundsen and his team planted the Norwegian flag in the South Pole. It would probably have stunned him to know that the Scott expedition was still 360 miles from the pole, man-hauling their sleds and would take another 34 days to get there. By the time they did, the Amundsen team was just eight days from their home base. They reached it precisely on the day they planned.

Amundsen was already sailing back to Norway when Scott’s team finally gave up hope, exhausted, depressed, frostbitten, and near starvation. Their frozen bodies were discovered in a tent, eight months later. It’s a tragic tale for those brave men, but it’s also a cautionary tale. If Amundsen had reviewed Scott’s plans before he set out, he would probably have urged him not to go at all.

For me, the fundamentals of planning are brought home…

  1. Scott set himself up for failure. Amundsen set himself up for success.
  2. Amundsen planning was future proofed, through ‘what if’ scenarios with a plan B, C, and D (remember the saying there are 25 other letters in the alphabet if plan A fails).
  3. Improvement and growth need direction and a sense of purpose. They simply won’t happen on their own.
  4. A clear roadmap forces accountability and responsibility which sometimes may lead to a change in route. This is OK.
  5. Risks can be turned into opportunities but you need to have identified them first.
  6. The ‘weight’ of a decision is reduced when it has had the time to be considered and calculated.
  7. For Scott and Amundsen their result was aligned directly to the quality of their planning.

Whilst I’m not suggesting you trek to the South Pole to test your planning abilities (!) take a look at your current priorities, projects, work stack.

Do you have a plan?

Do you have clear goals with key milestones and actions?

Have the risks been identified and mitigated?

Do you understand the decisions that need to be made & when, and the enablers and stakeholders to help you make those decisions?

Are your results directly aligned to the quality of your planning?

Remember, failing to plan really does mean planning to fail.

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