This Coaching Letter is about plans, but also about how they connect to small cycles of continuous improvement, as everything seems to do lately. My friend and colleague Bob Villanova suggested that I read 9 Lies About Work, by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. I think I’ll be talking and writing about it a lot, as it addresses many of the lies (‘We could call these things “misconceptions,” or “myths,” or even “misunderstandings,” but because they are pushed at us so hard, almost as if they’re being used to steer us away from the world as it truly is, we’ll call them “lies.”’) that I already talk and write about a lot. By the way, the book is an extension of a couple of articles in HBR, including “The Feedback Fallacy,” one of the most popular links ever in a Coaching Letter.

Chapter Two, or should I say, “Lie #2,” is titled “The Best Plan Wins.” Their point is that—well, actually, I have a hard time summarizing their point. I think it is mostly that The Strategic Plan as a static, top-down imposition onto dynamic, complex interactions is almost immediately out of date (“When you put your plan together in September, it’s obsolete by November.”); but they also say that plans tend to be “overly generalized, quickly obsolete, and frustrating to those asked to execute them.” I wrote about a related but slightly different set of problems with plans in this article in the Kappan: “An Improvement Plan Is Not Enough—You Need A Strategy.” The advantage of reading my article is that it is about planning in education rather than business.

If I had to focus on just one aspect of plans, I would say that what they are supposed to do is provide a guide from where the team/school/district/organization is to where it wants to be—AKA its vision. But they rarely accomplish that. One of the things I do when I have the opportunity to coach principals is to go through their school improvement plans and copy and paste the action steps into a single Word document. I put it in front of them—and it has always just been a single sheet of paper. The first thing they notice is that the action steps add up to so little space when the plan itself may be 40-50 pages. The first thing I ask is “if you do all these things, will you meet your goals?” and the answer is always no. But they have almost never had this feedback from their supervisors—who seem to be interested only in whether the school plan fits the required format, and whether the goals are ambitious enough. This is how I know that people don’t understand plans.

I think this line is in my article—we treat a plan, which is a product, as a proxy for a process, when actually it is no such thing. And that is why so many plans are perceived as irrelevant by the people who are supposed to be implementing them—they can’t connect what the plan says with their daily work. Buckingham and Goodall have a remedy for that—in fact, it’s their only remedy for Lie #2. They spend a chunk of the chapter talking about weekly meetings with direct reports, and why they have to be weekly and not less frequently.
Buckingham and Goodall suggest that in those weekly meetings with their direct reports leaders should ask two questions:

  1. What are your priorities this week?
  2. How can I help?

I think these are great, but I suggest that these are not totally sufficient, for several reasons, including that they do not treat these meetings as part of a cycle of continuous improvement, and re-iterate my refrain that leaders should be more like coaches (and coaches should be more like leaders). More on that soon.

If I believed in coincidence, I would be smug about how often HBR drops exactly the right article at the right time in my lap. From their recent Twitter feed: Planning Doesn’t Have to Be the Enemy of Agile. See also Don’t Let Strategy Become Planning and Your Strategy Should Be a Hypothesis You Constantly Adjust. And as my colleague Richard Lemons often reminds me: often plans have symbolic or political importance and we shouldn’t downplay that; not all plans are terrible and some are really good; and a strategy created as a compliance activity is just as useless as a plan created for the same reason.

Here are the links to the other Coaching Letters about small cycles of continuous improvement: #103, #102, and #94.

Finally, because some readers had difficulty opening the bitly links, I am no longer creating my links using bitly. The significant disadvantage to me is that I no longer know which are the most popular links—which, as someone who preaches the value of seeking out ways to use data as feedback, is not a great position to be in. So, dear readers, if anything is particularly useful to you or you would like to know more about it, you will have to email me, because I can no longer make inferences from the click data.

So, again, thank you for reading—I get so much out of the engagement with great people that comes my way as a result of the Coaching Letter. Cheers, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Cell: 860-576-9410
Twitter: @IsobelTX
Coaching Letter:

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