P is for Planning Properly To Increase The Probability Of Success    

During the 1960s and 70s I got the opportunity to learn from peak performers in different fields. One interesting theme that emerged was their different approaches to planning.

Some people set aside lots of time to plan their strategy and the steps towards achieving success. They loved thinking ahead, anticipating the different scenarios and making plans.

Some created storyboards that showed the milestones to be achieved and a visual image of them reaching the goals. They put this in a place where they could see it each day. This provided them with the motivation to keep working towards the picture of success.

One person explained the process they had just been through in the following way.

“The plan has come together beautifully. I have rehearsed following the strategy and also dealing with any possible challenges.

“I have done it in my mind. I now have to do it in action, but I am confident of success.”

The person loved the feeling of predictability, even though they knew things could change quickly. Bearing this in mind, they also anticipated and found solutions to potential problems. This helped them to feel more in control.

Arie de Geus, the author of The Living Company, spent many years helping companies to do scenario planning. He found that peak performers develop what he called a memory of the future.

They constantly envisage what might happen in their chosen field. They also develop a repertoire of tools for dealing with such challenges. This means they are several steps ahead when these situations become a reality.

Looking at the peak performers I studied, however, some gave a surprising answer regarding planning. After watching one great therapist run a family therapy session, for example, I asked about his preparation. He answered in the following way.

“I don’t plan much. I go into the session, watch how the family interact and help them to communicate better. This involves helping them to give clear messages to each other.

“Many families get into trouble because the parents have good intentions but poor communication. They sometimes give confused messages or conflicting messages to their children or partner.

“They may say: “I care for you,” for example, but their behaviour says: “I don’t care for you.” I help them to communicate in ways that help the family members to feel encouraged and grow.”

The family therapist said he did not plan the actual session. He did, however, have 30 years of experience helping such families. Pressed further, he said that he had mentally rehearsed the session, although he did not use that term.

The family had been referred to him because the 15-year-old son had set fire to a classroom at school. About the same time the 13-year-old daughter, who had previously been well-behaved, had stopped eating.

Travelling to the clinic, the therapist had recalled working with similar families in the past and what had worked on those occasions. But he still denied doing lots of planning. Building on his experience, he used what is called strategic intuition. This is a concept we will explore later in the article.

Looking at your own life, can you recall a time when you planned properly to increase the probability of success? You may have been preparing to take a test, hold a difficult conversation, take over a team or tackle another challenge.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the past when you planned properly and this increased the probability of success.

Describe the specific things you did to plan properly.  

Describe the specific benefits of taking these steps.

Great workers set up things to succeed rather than fail. They take this step whether planning to climb a mountain, lead a team, tackle a project or whatever.

They plan properly and do their due diligence. Bearing in mind what they can control in the situation, they often do the following things.

They clarify the real results to achieve – the picture of success.

They clarify the key strategies they can follow to give themselves the greatest chance of success.  

They clarify the resources required and how to implement the right strategy with the right people in the right way.  

They clarify the challenges they will face and how to manage these challenges successfully. 

They clarify how they can perform superb work, encourage themselves and others and do whatever else is required to achieve the picture of success.

Such workers do lots of rehearsal. Bill Walsh, the legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers, describes this approach in his book The Score Takes Care of Itself.

He believed that leaders must develop the right strategy for delivering success. This included planning for tackling various scenarios.

The strategy was then translated into standards of performance that people could follow both on and off the field. Providing they produced positive performances, the score would take of itself. Bill explained:

The motto of the Boy Scouts, ‘Be prepared,’ became my modus operandi, and to be prepared I had to factor in every contingency: good weather, bad weather, and everything in between.

You must envision the future deeply and in detail – creatively – so that the unforeseeable becomes foreseeable. Then you write the script for the foreseeable.

Of course, there’s always something you can’t anticipate, but you strive to greatly reduce the number of those foreseeables.

Bill followed the 80/20 rule. The 49ers focused on maximising the 80% they could control in a game.

There may be 20% they couldn’t control, such as a referee’s call, a bad bounce or fortune. Players were expected to practice relentlessly, however, until their execution at the highest level was automatic.

Bill called this routine perfection. Delivering these standards on the field vastly increased the team’s chances of success. 

Looking back at his time at the 49ers, the turnaround did not come straight away. Despite setbacks on the journey, however, he said:

Eventually – within months, in fact – a high level of professionalism began to emerge within our entire organization.

I moved forward methodically with a deep belief that the many elements of my Standard of Performance would produce that kind of mindset, an organizational culture that would subsequently be the foundation for winning games. 

The culture precedes positive results. It doesn’t get tacked on as an afterthought on the way to the victory stand. Champions behave like champions before they’re champions; they have a winning standard of performance before they are winners. 

Have you noticed that … great players and great companies don’t suddenly start hunching up, grimacing, and trying to ‘hit the ball harder’ at a critical point?

Rather, they are in a mode, a zone in which they’re performing and depending on their ‘game,’ which they’ve mastered over many months and years of intelligently directed hard work. 

By focusing strictly on my Standard of Performance, the 49ers were able to play the bigger games very well because it was basically business as usual – no ‘try harder’ mentality was used. 

In fact, I believed it was counter-productive. Consequently, the San Francisco 49ers could function under tremendous stress and the forces that work on individuals in competitive situations.

Great workers are often like mountain climbers. They clarify the real result to achieve – such as getting up and down the mountain safely. They clarify the strategies they can follow to achieve success.

They also clarify the problems they might meet, how to prevent these happening and how to manage such events if they do happen. They then rehearse again the strategies for achieving success.

As mentioned earlier, however, some great workers may say they do not do much planning. Gary Klein came across this approach when writing a book about decision making. He found that some people use what is called strategic intuition.

Gary has written several books on this topic. These include Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions and The Power of Intuition.

Bill Breen has written an excellent article about Gary’s work in The Fast Company magazine. You can find it at the following link.

Bill Breen Fast Company

Gary studied firefighters, medical staff and many people who make decisions in pressure situations. Such people often go beyond the process of calculating all the potential options. Speaking with Bill Breen, Gary explained this in the following way.

I noticed that when the most experienced commanders confronted a fire, the biggest question they had to deal with wasn’t ‘What do I do?’ It was ‘What’s going on?’

“That’s what their experience was buying them – the ability to size up a situation and to recognize the best course of action.”

Gary goes on to outline the steps such people then take in high-pressure situations.

They reach into their experience – going through it on ‘hyperdrive’ – to scan previous scenarios and see what lessons might apply to the present situation.

They are, at the same time, fully present: they look for patterns and clues to piece together what is happening.

They choose what they believe would be the best course of action and play scenarios about how this might work in practice.

Describing how Gary talks about expert firefighters, Bill’s article outlines what such people do next.

Once they make a decision, they evaluate it by rapidly running a mental simulation. They imagine how a course of action may unfold and how it may ultimately play out.

The process is akin to building a sequence of snapshots, says Klein, and then observing what occurs.

“If everything works out okay, the commanders stick with their choice. But if they discover unintended consequences that could get them into trouble, they discard that solution and look for another one.

“They might run through several choices, but they never compare one option with another.

“They rapidly evaluate each choice on its own merits, even if they cycle through several possibilities. They don’t need the best solution. They just need the one that works.

“Experienced decision makers see a different world than novices do,” concludes Klein.  

“And what they see tells them what they should do. Ultimately, intuition is all about perception. The formal rules of decision making are almost incidental.”

“We used to think that experts carefully deliberate the merits of each course of action, whereas novices impulsively jump at the first option,” says Klein.

But his team concluded that the reverse is true.

“It’s the novices who must compare different approaches to solving a problem.

“Experts come up with a plan and then rapidly assess whether it will work. They move fast because they do less.”

Let’s return to your own life and work. Can you think of a situation in the future when you may want to plan properly to increase the probability of success? This could be in your personal or professional life.

You will have your own approach to planning. You may make lists, use excel spread sheets, make a road map, make a story board, draw a picture of you reaching the goal or use another method. It is important to use the approach that works for you.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future when you may want to plan properly to increase the probability of success.

Describe the specific things you can do to plan properly in the situation.

Describe the specific benefits of taking these steps.

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