In the Critical Chain Project Managment Yahoo group that I am subscribed too I just read a great post by Michael Carroll that I thought everyone here might benefit from reading. The topic his post was in response to was How common is it to have "No plans"? (The emphases placed are mine.)
I have been helping my son train for his swim team. Most local high school teams follow a tradition of generating what you might call brute force to achieve their results by what would seem to be a wise strategy to work harder, faster, and longer than the other teams. Yet this approach is a tad bit frustrating for both the coaches and swimmers as academics standards must also be met. In each of these swim programs you will always have a few swimmers who are naturals and rise to the top and yet the rest of the team struggles. You can observe all of the other swimmers putting their might into swimming with poor technique struggling against the water going home each day discouraged because the long hours, hard work and efforts are not paying off. To make it worse the coach is sure to let all know that to be more like the top tier swimmers you must have a better work effort, more drive, and more dedication.
Why do I bring this up when talking about project plans? I do so for three reasons: Time, perspective, and tradition.
Time – The more pressure and organization has to perform a given task the more apt they are to roll up their sleeves and re double their efforts by working harder, faster, and longer. Why? Mainly because the technique has worked in the past. Yet on the other hand I think it would be fair to say business managers are wise and know that they need to think things out and generally will agree that planning is as equally important as taking immediate action. So attempts are made to plan. Often these show up as the daily stand up meetings like swimmers meeting with the coach each practice to get pumped up about how hard they are going to work, how they are going to change, and to discuss the upcoming meet. Fortunately swimming has an off season and the coaches will have a few months to create next years winning strategy. Unlike swimming teams most businesses don’t get an off season. More often then not, serious deep strategic planning is done in a shoot from the hip manner, for time pressures do not allow much of any thing else.
Perspective – Coaches study the tapes of Olympic swimmers over and over again looking to help their swimmers mimic the gold medal winning strokes. However there is a serious flaw in this. Swimmers swimming at max speed do not display perfect technique because they are swimming close to being completely out of control. Yet watch the great Alexander Popov and his practices sessions look nothing like his racing because he swims only fast enough to make his technique perfect. Yet watch most high school swimmers and they practice poor technique and swim at max effort. So when they get to race day and they push the engines hard they cross the line and the extra effort at race day only buys a minimal improvement in performance. Yet the great Popov’s muscles remember the perfect technique and allow him to stay in enough control to devastate the competition. Similarly in business, our perspective on the most successful companies is distorted because we watch the great organizations without seeing the disciplined approach to planning, training, and methodical execution. Additionally add in time pressure and inadequate training and the only thing left is the strategy of harder, faster, longer.
Tradition – Swimming has a long history of tradition and so do businesses. In fact most business leaders gained their first lessons in leadership in the sports arena. Most swimmers who make it to college level swimming are almost impossible to retrain. If they have defects in their stroke it can take years to erase because of muscle and nerve memory. The problem is even greater for men than women because of the tradition of using sheer strength to solve stroke problems. Do we not see the same thing in business?
As I apply these lessons to my own companies I am cognizant of how important disciplined project planning and execution is. It takes a conscious effort to set aside the appropriate amount of time to not only plan, but to build solid systems that allow business execution to occur not only during the slow cycles but to do so at race time when customers are knocking at the door in the up cycle and to do it without going over the edge of control.