How to write a plan


There’s loads of guff in the public sector around “having a plan”.
Contrary to expectations, planning doesn’t produce plans. No, the need for plans gives birth to planning, like:

  • leadership strategic retreats to nice country hotels
  • managerial away-days in acceptable Travel-Inn conference suites with carpet tiles on the walls
  • staff planning afternoons in meeting rooms that “won’t be locked at lunchtime so you’ll have to take your bags with you.

The latter are the best value as they’re the cheapest.
After this there is the ceremonial garments that festoon plans.

  • a godforsaken Policy Officer who’s never had to write a plan in their life has to produce guidance to tell people what to put in their plans. Luckily, not me so far.
  • challenge sessions, where some people in a room argue over the content of fictitious plans based on guesswork and ignorance.
  • launch events where staff stumble around a corporate church fete of tables and pin-boards staffed by Sub-under Assistant Deputy Managers (temporary), bewildered and bored in equal measure.
  • jolly diagrams and triangles are pinned on walls showing a spurious alignment with fictitious corporate priorities, demonstrating the crucial part they play in the organisation.

I can’t stand plans.

If you’ve done something repeatedly, and know how it works, you’ve got yourself something you can write a plan about. Like building a house, after ten of them you’ve probably got a pretty good idea how it all works. You can plan your next one now, safe in the knowledge that it will probably go roughly the same as the others.

But if it’s your first house, well, you’ve seen those programmes on the telly, where someone is building or renovating their dream house? And everything takes twice as long and costs three times as much? Same thing. Not plan worthy. Be organised, yes, but a plan that is not the same, especially in an organisation. There they become millstones around people’s necks, replacements for reality.

That diagram above was written on 1 side of an index card and I’ve put it in a suggestion box that’s been set up for our service plan. I’ve also drawn in felt tip this old thing.

I don’t want to change the plan, I want to change the thinking. So that means I don’t tinker with a Word document, I’m going straight for the jugular, or rather several inches above and behind the jugular, that squishy grey blob where the only thing worthy of the word “strategic” resides.

photo (4)

It’s the Voight-Kampff Test for bureaucrats. Which came first?

Lobbing improvised home-made cube grenades into suggestion boxes may not be the way to change an organisation, but then plans aren’t either, and at least mine are only on 1 side of paper.


More than art needs business any way.

This entry was posted in experiment, plans, public sector, systems thinking and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to How to write a plan

  1. John Wenger says:

    They’ll know that it’s your index card in the suggestion box. You probably scare them.

    Nice one.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Yes, I hope so. They’re nice people, the monsters have all gone so no need for hiding now.
      It’s like when the dinosaurs went extinct and the little rat-like proto mammals could emerge safely.


  2. Nich says:

    Earlier this week, I saw a plan with *hexagons* in it. I resisted the temptation to say “I’ll have a P, please, Bob”. Just.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Hexagons! God, sounds like theyve got some kind of a system going on there. Probably out of a box.

      Better than triangles, as we all know. I reckon oblongs are due a comeback. Along with white dog poo.


  3. dancarins says:

    Michael Foley also misses white dog poo, but I saw some in Smethwick about two weeks ago. Scout’s honour.


  4. nosapience says:

    Oh come on, planning is a very efficient, traditional tool for the leadership at the top, to ensure that those slackers at the bottom, shut up and comply. PLAN is actually an acronym – Pull Lever And Nod!


  5. Ian Gilson says:

    Like it TP!
    There are several major problems with traditional plans:
    1. They are prepared in exactly the way you wryly observe above; in a country hotel, by senior management, none of which have been near the actual work for decades. How do you make a plan when you don’t know where you are starting from?
    2. The Plan becomes a rigid straight-jacket for the organisation, despite the fact that reality takes them away from the planned route by the end of day one; “but the plan says we have to do this”!
    3. Senior management use the plan to create milestones, which are linked to targets and PbR and all those niceties that we know and love.
    4. Plans tend to miss the vital Deming point: by what method?

    I am going to commit heresy now though and say that strategy (and therefore, planning) is not a dirty word. Whisper it quietly, but I think it’s ok to have a clear idea of where you want your organisation to be several years hence. However, I would suggest that any strategic plan needs the following:

    1. It must be prepared by people who truly understand current performance
    2. It must be inextricably linked to purpose
    3. It must be flexible, so that when the organisation veers away from the plan, people understand why that is the case and whether it is desirable to steer back towards the original path.
    4. It must include serious thought about the “how”, which again requires knowledge of what is actually happening in the work.

    In the same way that the best chess players are thinking several moves ahead, there is nothing wrong with thinking ahead in business. The problem is, most senior managers have no visibility of what their pawns are doing and are too wrapped up in their own piss and importance to even think of reacting to the moves their opponent makes. Checkmate!


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      I just can’t be *bothered* with them.
      My office is stuffed full of them, I’m like somebody who once had a very bad experience with rum and now can’t even smell it without dry heaving.


      • Ian Gilson says:

        Trouble is, that’s how some people feel about systems thinking.


        • ThinkPurpose says:

          Thing is there’s a difference between not following a plan and being disorganised. And when I am known for being “anti-plan” AND I’m quite disorganised, I can see how people around me can hear my “anti-plan” as advocating living by the seat of your pants and not having a clue what you’re doing next week.

          But I also robotically repeat the cult prayer of “the only plan is get knowledge” , so I must be a nightmare to work with, in terms of trying to understand what I’m withering on about. Consistency-wise.


          • Haha, I also resemble that remark!
            Don’t worry, I’m sure your organisation has a plan to deal with your anti-plan. Imagine all the “what ifs” they have had to build into it though and god help ’em if you should gain more knowledge…


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