Planning is a basic function of management that has fallen victim to an action orientation popularized by Peters and Waterman’s classic business book “In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies.” Their research identified that excellent companies had a “bias for action,” a mindset that has been readily embraced by the business community. Popular business axioms further encourage this mindset, such as “Do it. Fix it. Try it.” or “Ready. Fire. Aim.” And Karl Weick, a leading organizational theorist famously stated, “chaotic action is preferable to orderly inaction.”
An action orientation is useful, I am not arguing that point. There are plenty of success stories to cite and an abundance of research supporting the need to act. But if an unhealthy balance between action and planning develops, where action makes planning obsolete, or creates a culture that views planning as a waste of time, serious problems take root. Ineffective delegation, poorly run meetings, and role ambiguity are three casualties of such environments.
Organizations need to pay attention. Employee engagement remains a key to success for many organizations, and three of the simplest ways to improve employee engagement are effective delegation, useful meetings, and role clarity. But to accomplish these three things, managers need the time required for planning.
At first glance, delegation appears rather straightforward—tell people what needs to be accomplished and then let them do their thing. This simple thinking is the byproduct of an action orientation, one that can too often devalue planning. Unfortunately, such an approach to delegation generally results in failure and frustration. Proper delegation planning allows managers to determine what to delegate, whom to delegate, and the required resources for successful completion. Planning also allows the manager to think through the scope of authority, meaning determining what decisions the employee can make on their own, the timeline for completion, and how performance will be monitored. Planning is critical for successful delegation, and it requires dedicated time.
The second casualty of action at the expense of planning is meetings. Poorly run meetings are the bane of organizational life, the soul-crushing activity universally hated by employees, mostly because it wastes their time. The meeting that should have been a memo or simple email. The meeting that has no stated objectives, purpose, or time parameters. The meeting that has a 20-page report waiting at the conference table, with a manager expecting a meaningful discussion based on the report just received. Such meetings are the result of poor planning. For meetings to produce meaningful results, and to be looked upon by employees as useful, dedicated time for planning them is required.
The third casualty of an unhealthy balance between action and planning is role ambiguity. Too often employees are hired because of an immediate need, given a generic job description, and sped through a technical onboarding process. The hiring manager then expects that new employee to deliver expected results, and the new employee wants to succeed. The problem of role ambiguity emerges when the employee lacks the resources required for success, and when the employee does not have clear expectations on what value they were hired to deliver. Generic job descriptions and an expedited technical onboarding process do not deliver clear expectations. The unfortunate result is that the newly hired employee exerts effort on the wrong things, and gets feedback about doing things the wrong way, leaving both parties frustrated. Role ambiguity can be avoided through proper planning, which requires dedicated time.
Effective delegation, facilitating useful meetings, and providing role clarity are three simple things that organizations can change relatively quickly and inexpensively. The impact on employee engagement, and its role as a key to organizational success provides a significant return on investment. Organizations should do a simple assessment to determine if an unhealthy balance between an action orientation and planning has crept into its culture. If so, the simplest way to fix this is to go back to business basics and provide management and executive teams with the dedicated time required for planning. As the famous adage warns, “failing to plan is planning to fail.”
(Originally published by the Reading Eagle Business Weekly on 4-10-18)