The Best Laid Plans

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has a book suggestion for President Obama: The Best and the BrightestDavid Halberstam’s classic account of the origins of the Vietnam War.

Why? “Theories and grand ideas are important,” Powell explained in an interview with the Sunday Book Review of the New York Times. “But they seldom unfold as planned. People—it is all about people.”

Such a lesson would undoubtedly be valuable to anyone contemplating, say, the invasion of a Middle Eastern country, but it also has its uses for those of us with less momentous decisions to make.

Peter Drucker liked to point out that plans cannot be a straightjacket—they must change in line with shifting realities. That’s why he never placed any faith in planned economies, even when others did.

“The planner must be right in his timing of 10 or 20 separate developments, all of which must arrive at the same point at the same moment lest the whole plan collapse,” Drucker warned in The New Society, published in 1950. “The planner stakes all on an unbroken series of 20 rolls of seven.”

Like Powell, Drucker also stressed that all plans hinge on human dynamics in the end. “Work is only done when it’s done. Done by people,” he wrote. “By people who are properly informed, assigned and equipped. People with a deadline. People who are developed and evaluated. The best plan is only a plan—a set of good intentions—unless there is communication, action, appraisal and the continuous reallocation of the organization’s resources to getting results.”

Drucker made a similar point in Management Challenges for the 21st Century. “The most brilliant planners far too often stop when the plan is completed,” he declared. “But that is when the work begins. Then the planner needs to find the people to carry out the plan, explain the plan to them, teach them, adapt and change the plan as it moves from planning to doing and, finally, decide when to stop pushing for the plan.”

Where in your workplace have you encountered the theories of planners undone by the reality of people?