Sunday, June 19, 2016

Strategic planning for individuals and families, Part 6

This is the last in a series of articles, which may be found at the following links, and should be read in numerical sequence:

We've looked at the elements and techniques involved in drawing up a strategic plan.  Those we've discussed are fairly simple and straightforward, and work across many scenarios for many different people (that's why I like them).  There are many other planning techniques;  research them if you wish, and adopt those that seem most suitable to you.

In this final article in our series, I'd like to look at some peripheral issues and concerns that will affect the development and implementation of our plan.

1.  Start small, and build up from there.  If we try to plan for our entire future all at once, with everything neatly packaged and tied up in ribbon, we're going to find it very difficult - probably impossible - to cater for every eventuality.  It's best to start small, get used to the planning process, make sure we know how to implement the plan we've made, then try something bigger.  (Remember the old African proverb:  "How do you eat an elephant?  Mouthful by mouthful!"  Dave Ramsay offers a similar approach with his "7 Baby Steps" to taking control of your money.  BTW, I highly recommend his program if you're struggling in that area.)

When, as a pastor, I used to walk couples through the planning process, I used to advise them to start by planning a specific project together - something simple and short-term, where they'd be comfortable with all the elements involved.  Examples I've seen included redecorating a room, or preparing for a vacation, or buying a new vehicle, or building a tree house for their kids.  It was undoubtedly overblown to use a formal planning process for such simple things, but as exercises in how to plan, they provided invaluable training.  Having seen how the process worked, and committed to implementing simple plans together, the couples could then apply the same techniques to bigger and more important matters.  I used to quote the Parable of the Talents to them:  "You have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things."  In planning terms, if we can carefully draw up a plan and faithfully execute it to accomplish small things, we'll find it much easier to do the same for bigger and more complex things in due course.

2.  We need to take the planning process seriously.  A lot of people regard it as too complicated, or too 'heavy'.  "Lighten up, man!"  "Don't harsh my mellow!"  "Chill!"  Such attitudes can lead to under-analysis of the issues confronting us.  That, in turn, means that our plan won't address some things that may be important.  Later, when we're "working to the plan", that means we won't be thinking about those issues . . . and they may creep up to bite us in the metaphorical butt.

A good example was discussed in Part 5 of this series.  If we're planning to build up emergency food supplies, but ignore extra water supplies, we can end up dying of thirst while surrounded by packets of dry food we can't use.  Similarly, if we don't plan for and provide a means to prepare the food we're stockpiling, we can find ourselves unable to use it.  We need to take the process of analysis seriously, think as broadly as possible, and try to cover all the bases.  The process known as brainstorming is very useful in that regard, and I highly recommend it.  (YouTube has some useful videos showing how to do it.)

That's also a good reason to bring in others to help with the planning process.  If you and your partner are trying to develop a 'life plan' (even if it's only for the next five years), how about inviting a few friends - people you like and trust - to join you in doing so?  They may think of things you'll miss, and vice versa;  and you can help them adopt a more formalized, step-by-step approach to planning that they otherwise might not use.  Also, don't forget that your parents and grandparents have a lot more experience of such things than you do!  Ask their advice.  You might be surprised by how much they've learned the hard way about life.  If you listen to them, you may avoid many pitfalls.

3.  Planning that never leads to action is useless.  Over-planning, or too detailed an analysis, can lead to the infamous condition known as paralysis by analysis.  Wikipedia describes it as:
"... the state of over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome. A decision can be treated as over-complicated, with too many detailed options, so that a choice is never made, rather than try something and change if a major problem arises. A person might be seeking the optimal or 'perfect' solution upfront, and fear making any decision which could lead to erroneous results, while on the way to a better solution."
Another way to describe this problem is the well-known saying that "Perfect is the enemy of good".  As Wikipedia puts it:
... one might never complete a task if one has decided not to stop until it is perfect: completing the project well is made impossible by striving to complete it perfectly. Closely related is the Nirvana fallacy, in which people never even begin an important task because they feel reaching perfection is too hard.
This is particularly true in military planning.  As General Patton famously noted, "A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week."  On another occasion he said, "A good solution applied with vigor now is better than a perfect solution applied ten minutes later."  Both are excellent summations of the problem.  We, as civilian individuals and couples and families, may not be planning in terms of fighting a war, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from those who have.

4.  The plan is not necessarily the reality, just as the map is not the territory.  We can become so fixated on the plan that we lose sight of events and changing circumstances in the real world that may make our plan unworkable.  A few examples:
  • If we're focusing on and working hard to build up a years' food supply and store it in our garage, but ignore the reality that our house is in a flood plain, any flood will inundate our garage and everything inside it.  That's not exactly productive.
  • In Part 3 of this series of articles, we looked at Joe and Mary and the plans they were making together.  We pointed out that some elements were unspoken, such as the assumption that they were going to remain together.  If their marriage is in trouble, and there's the possibility of separation or divorce, it's far more important to address and resolve that issue first before planning anything else together!
  • Bonds and certificates of deposit earned reasonable interest rates before the 2007/08 financial crisis;  but after that, the zero-interest-rate policies of central banks dropped interest rates to very low levels.  An investment plan for retirement made and implemented before the crisis, that did not envisage or allow for such changes, would have beggared anyone following it after the crisis erupted.
We have to be sufficiently flexible in our planning to take account of a wide variety of circumstances, and changes that affect them;  but we also have to keep our objectives in mind, and not allow circumstances to distract us from them unless there's no alternative.  As the old aphorism puts it, "When you're up to your ass in crocodiles, it's difficult to remind yourself that you're trying to drain the swamp!"  Allow for the crocodiles when you plan, and don't let them take your eyes off the goal - the purpose and objectives - you're trying to achieve.

5.  We can't impose a plan on those who don't support it.  Similarly, we can't force people to become involved in planning if they regard it as a waste of time.  This is a particular obstacle for many couples, where one partner really wants to plan for a project, or the next five years, or whatever, but the other partner is content to go along from day to day, dealing with problems as they arise but never developing a medium- to long-term plan or perspective.  We aren't in the army.  We can't impose our will on others;  we can only seek to persuade them to join us, or encourage them to see things from our perspective, or (at worst) get them to humor or tolerate our eccentricities!

I've seen this sort of conflict in almost every relationship with which I've dealt as a pastor - including my own.  My wife sometimes nags me about keeping certain things around the house clean and organized, whereas I regard those things as supremely unimportant.  Nevertheless, they're important to her, so if I want domestic peace and tranquility, I'd better do something about them!  In the same way, I want to build up supplies of things that are important to me in the light of my life experience.  I've needed them very badly in the past, and want to be prepared in case I need them again.  On the other hand, she's never needed them, and regards my focus on them as a waste of time and money.  Nevertheless, she humors me and allows me to indulge at least some of those things, because I do the same for her.  We've learned to make allowances for each other.

Planning is no different.  If one partner thinks a formal plan is important, but the other doesn't, it's going to be a process of negotiation to work that out between them.  One may have to tolerate less formality and less structure to the plan;  the other may have to endure more of both than they'd prefer;  but between the two of them, given goodwill and mutual respect, they'll find a way to make it work.  In the same way, kids can be ordered to do something when they're very young, but as they grow up they'll also grow more independent.  If you're developing a plan for your family's future, you need to involve them in it and "sell" it to them, not expect them to merely obey orders.  If they see no point to the exercise, why should they support it?  Rewards and incentives are as important as (if not more so than) punishments or restrictions, in the context of a family.

6.  A sense of humor is a big help!  Trying to develop a plan is hard work, and sometimes frustrating, particularly when someone's cherished idea turns out to be unworkable in the real world (something the S.W.O.T. technique often reveals in remorseless detail).  Similarly, implementing the plan can run into difficulties;  there may not be enough money to do everything on schedule, or people may have other commitments that distract them from doing everything the plan expects them to do, or the timetable may be disrupted by events outside everyone's control (for example, illness or injury, or losing a job and being without work).  We have to take such things in our stride.  The old proverb says that "Man proposes, but God disposes".  It may not be God doing the disposing - Murphy is alive and well, and Mother Nature can be a stone cold bitch sometimes! - but our 'proposals' are always subject to external factors that may help or hinder them.  That's life.  We may as well learn to accept it, and laugh at it - and ourselves!

This can also affect how we implement our plan.  If we have young kids in our family, why not try to make the plan into a game for them?  Offer rewards to the one doing the most, or getting the most things right, and make it fun and entertaining.  You'll get much better co-operation from them if they're enjoying the process.  (The same applies to each other!)

Those are just a few ideas that may help us make better plans, and implement them better as well.  It's sometimes a difficult and time-consuming process;  but if we're following a map, we're much more likely to get to where we want to be.  If we aren't - if we're not working to a plan, but just 'muddling through' from day to day - we're unlikely to get anywhere or achieve anything, except by accident!



Eric Wilner said...

Thank you for this series.
I've only skimmed it at this point, but will go over it (among many other things) in detail while preparing for this fall's long-overdue lifestyle reboot.

John Peddie (Toronto) said...

And don't forget the utensils.

Easy method: look through your kitchen drawers as you would for a camping trip, then buy spares of the essentials.

Now look in your kitchen cupboards.

How much of that do you need?

Old NFO said...

All good ones Peter, and as we know, a plan never survives first contact, but at least HAVING a plan allows one to come up with workable alternatives to keep going...