Planning Has Many Perils, and One Is Past Success

A peril to planning is past success. ECCU COO Scott Vandeventer writes that one has to break this mold to move forward.


Old axioms are often wrong and are very difficult to remove from our collective psyche. One of these is that ''success breeds success.'' Success is just as likely to breed failure. A wild thought? Think again!

If your credit union is successful, however you define it, you achieve a certain level of security and confidence. Your organization found an approach to success among the many potential wrong approaches. Unfortunately, stakeholders, like your board, reward your success by raising the standard against which it judges your performance. These well-meaning folks forget the struggle everyone went through to find that ''right approach.''

Following past successes, however, whether your own or someone else's – is a path to organizational peril. The shoe never fits the same two organizations or for that matter the same organization twice.

Where planning often fails

A significant challenge credit union leaders face is overcoming planning inertia or, better said, organizational laziness in the face of yesterday’s triumphs. Yesterday’s successful plans are embedded in the organizational mind and are the reason we see so much mediocrity in financial services, including credit unions. In a reversal of ''throwing out the baby with the bath water,'' we keep not only the baby but the old bath water, too.

Three planning prescription

So, what does it take to get us off our organizational laurels and make plans that lead to the highest potential probability of success? Three key things to consider:

First, planning is an evolving process that integrates the incomplete views of multiple intelligent people into a cohesive, actionable, living plan. Planning must become an integral part of organizational life. The direction you choose should be challenged, vetted and refined across hours and hours of seemingly endless dialogue, reading, research and counsel. You prove your preferred future hypothesis over and over again, refining it as you go.

Second, if you want to be organizationally fit for the planning triathlon, get off the couch. From my first venture into business until now, I have believed in planning. Even so, there was a time when I grew to detest planning retreats, planning days, and extended planning meetings. But then I recognized that the exhaustion and frustration are a necessary part of creating the tremendous value and focus that comes out of these extended times together.

We were engaging in constructive dissonance that enhanced our creativity. If we didn’t do this here, we were certain to live out those assumptions in our organization unchallenged, out of view, and without context – a very dangerous proposition.

Caution: if you are the CEO and you don’t believe you have the right team or you aren’t committed to them through thick and thin, you’ll have to work through these issues before you can expect to be successful at this kind of planning engagement. In the course of my organizational life, we have had mediators, psychologists, strategists, industry experts and many others help us even while we strived to find the collaborative beat we had to feel together to fulfill our corporate mission.

Third, whatever you do, communicate the results of your planning as simply as you can (a task of unequaled effort) and ask folks to line up behind it. A lot of planning dialogue deserves to be left ''on the cutting room floor'' -- the ideas haven’t matured enough for general release. But those ideas that have the imprimatur of organizational leaders need to get communicated, and not just rhetorically. Using graphics to represent gazillions of words is very effective. Words must get translated into specific organizational direction if the planning is to drive priorities, investment and schedule. Like I said, the planning never ends.

''Plans are nothing, but planning is everything.''

We still have a lot to learn but are amazingly better today at taking words and translating them into organizational action. This process is often called alignment but it is really more. It’s not just getting people to comply. We work hard to create the kind of culture that encourages debate but gets us moving with commitment to the common direction we see as best for our organization for now.

One old axiom that is worth keeping comes from Dwight Eisenhower: ''In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are nothing, but planning is everything.'' Now those are words to plan by.

To read other thought-provoking articles by industry leaders such as Ed Callahan and Bucky Sebastian, click here to subscribe to The Callahan Report. 




Nov. 14, 2005


  • A Harvard study recently reported that most strategies only return of fraction of their financial potential. Most plans fail in execution. Lofty words followed by disjointed, unfocused, uninspired activity. To be effective at driving/ maximizing performance planning must move from "retreat of an annointed few" and be ingrained as the way the business is managed and directed. But as the article spells out... old habits are hard to break.
  • Excellent article. Thanks.