Simon Terry

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Planning for Execution vs Emergence


We Plan for Execution Today

Organisations are addicted to planning. They run on their resource allocations. Planning decisions are the big decisions in every year and every day. Organisations judge success on plan delivery. Forecasting the future is the heart of what they do. The challenge is that this planning is all based on a historical model of planning for execution. We set our plan in advance and then we relentlessly deliver it until it is done.  The better control you have over the plan the better you shape the intended execution. Delivering the plan is far more important than success.

The agile and collaborative ways of working in the future of work start to threaten this mode of working. We want to learn and respond to facts and opportunities as they arise. We want to be responsive to what emerges in the networks in and around the organisation. All of this responsiveness creates a nightmare for traditional execution oriented planning.

One response is to throw our hands up in the air and say “there is no plan”.  If the organisation is small, this can be a feasible outcome as long as people remain connected but it is hardly a scaleable or sustainable strategy for larger organisations. What we need to do in these cases is shift our mindset from planning for execution to planning for emergence.

How Do We Plan for Emergence?

We could do away with the planning word completely, but most of our organisations are still going to need some guidance to embrace a world of emergent opportunities. Here are some suggestions on how to bridge the gap:

Create shared goals: Until you have shared goals, you have little chance of effective collaboration. Shared goals are a key point of connection. Start a conversation to connect people around their shared goals and objectives.

Have a shared guiding strategy: A strategy is a way to achieve the goals. It is not a complete set of instructions. A strategy can help independent employees work together to make the right decisions to take advantage of the opportunities in front of them.

Invest in open capabilities: Julian Stodd talks about ‘social scaffolding‘. I like the metaphor because it recognises that often we need open capabilities to support our work. We don’t want to be prescribed the actions. We need the support of the right tools, groups and capabilities to succeed. We get to choose how those are applied to our work.

A new mindset: Roger L Martin talks about the need to move beyond our traditional perfectionistic approach. We will need to let go of control. We can go further and look beyond our traditional incrementalist efficiency orientation for dramatic changes in effectiveness. Ultimately, we must embrace the personal and social dynamics of networks, uncertainty and change to allow for emergence.

Test and debate our logic & decisions: In a traditional plan the logic is often buried in the detail of cost allocations. Experimentation and an open logic enables everyone to help iterate the logic and the key decisions.

Measure success:  We need goals to measure our success. Measurement should be increased not abandoned in the ambiguity of how we specifically achieve goals. The dangers of traditional planning is that we often end up measuring the plan and not success. Make sure your metrics are focused on measuring what you actually want to achieve.

Involve the whole system: Top-down plans usually have few participants. They often fail at first contact with a customer. Working with emergence in networks enables a much wider part of an organisation’s system to contribute to the plans and the work underway. This build robustness of the action and contributes to chances of success.

Scale successes: Investing behind success is far better than investing upfront on a detailed plan.


  1. Bill Wallace says:

    This reminds me of the “Loose/Tight” idea. The goals, objectives etc are fixed (perhaps less fixed these days), but how to achieve the objectives is loose, do what needs to be done and do it effectively (time, resources, costs etc). Planning based on past data is anathema but as you say here, with a view to the future, planning needs to take in a lot more of the non traditional but freely available resources.

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