By Nick Wright

Nick Philippines.jpg
Nick in the Philippines

“There’s a big difference between plan and prepare.” (Rob Abbott)

I was chatting with a friend, Rob, yesterday about a forthcoming trip to the Philippines to co-lead a community event with local people. I had commented on how updates on numbers and ages of participants and other such details fluctuate from day to day as the event approaches. It makes detailed planning difficult, especially as I know from experience that I am likely to encounter all kinds of other interesting and unanticipated issues, opportunities and challenges when I arrive.

This is a real life example of where to plan has its limits. If I rely on having everything organised in advance, all my proverbial ducks lined up, all my I’s dotted and T’s crossed in order to be successful in this venture, I will almost certainly come unstuck. What will happen when reality clashes with what I had carefully designed? What will I do and how will I feel? Will I try to force-fit people and circumstances back into what I had in mind – or tear up the tidy Gant chart and improvise?

I think this is where to prepare can be very different and useful. It means having clear-enough vision and goals in mind, or a willingness to co-create them in the room, then anticipating a broad range of scenarios and possibilities. It involves preparing myself, my relationship with my co-leader, activities and materials that we can flex and adapt as needed. This approach is sometimes called emergent or adaptive leadership – a willingness and ability to be responsive in the midst of change.

I have found a couple of questions valuable in discerning and deciding my own approach. Firstly, I will reflect on what I need to feel confident and competent in a situation. Is my desire to plan really a desire to increase my felt-sense of control and decrease my angst in the face of uncertainty? Secondly, I will reflect on the situation itself. What does this situation call for and for whom? In what ways will planning facilitate a way forward and in what ways could it get in the way?

I’ve noticed that leaders’ responses to these and similar questions tend to be influenced partly by personal preferences (e.g. whether the leader prefers to live life and work in an organised, structured, predictable way or perhaps in a more open, fluid way) and partly by cultural norms (e.g. whether forward planning is regarded as the right and best way to do things or living in the potential of the moment is considered more important and valuable). It’s not a one-size-fits-all.

In my own leadership practice, I have noticed a shift over the years. Whereas earlier I would plan hard – and sometimes over-plan – to increase my sense of confidence in achieving the results I had in mind, now I will pray, reflect, focus on goals and aspirations and leave more open space for serendipitous questions, ideas and solutions to emerge. It means I am more present to the here-and-now, more relational, more resourceful and, on the whole, more effective. How about you?

Nick Wright is a leadership coach and organisation development consultant. (