"Master Plan" or Rapid Experimentation?

Tom Peters posted some very interesting thoughts "The Right Plan Is to Have No Plan" which touches both on why a lot of foreign aid programs fail and how that applies to business execution as well.

At the heart of the matter is a difference in execution styles - some companies and people want to try to plan out every single detail having meeting after meeting working on a grand "master plan." Over time these companies build cultures that are afraid to experiment and believe they need every detail planned out in order to get anything done.

The other execution style focuses on getting the major pieces of the plan worked out and then gets to work rapidly implementing. They rapidly try things out - often trying several small things at once. As soon as they find something that works they build on it. When they find something that does not work they ask "how could it work?" and "what did we learn?"

While the "Master Plan" approach may seem great from an acedemic perspective it rarely works in reality because there is no way for anyone to be able to see all the details in a complex system (like a company with more than 1 employee!) to be able to create that "Master Plan" no matter how many meetings are held.

The rapid experimentation, if built into the company culture properly will always perform the best. While this method may seem like chaos - it can be very effective is the chaos can be controlled just a little. Managing the chaos is very challenging and you will always be working in the gray area between total chaos and restrictive bureaucracy.

Managing the chaos should come in a few stages:

1. Set clear goals for “RESULTS” – not “PROCESS”

2. Encourage the team to “EXPERIMENT” with different “PROCESSES” to attain the “RESULTS” – if at all possible have more than one team working on the problem separately

3. Push for experimentation and thinking outside the box – ask “WHY” (5) times at each step of the process – including “Why even do this step?”

4. Reward even failures – the constant “EXPERIMENTATION” is the key to long-term organizational success

5. “MEASURE” the differences between the different “PROCESSES” and the actual “RESULTS” achieved. Discuss the various experiments rigorously with the team(s) and determine what the best “PROCESS” really is

6. “DOCUMENT” the process thoroughly including descriptions of why and anticipated results

7. Setup “VERIFICATION” systems to ensure the new “PROCESS” is being followed including reports and visual indicators

8. “TRAIN” everyone across the company in the new “PROCESS”

9. “VERIFY” that everyone is using the new “PROCESS” consistently – in the long-term any “system” will beat any “non-system” in performance

10. Once everyone is using the system consistently encourage people to start “EXPERIMENTING” again on refinement. There is no “PROCESS” that will last forever so constant reinvention of the systems is crucial. Go back to step 1.


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