There is no getting around the fact that making a good plan is a good idea. Planning for the worst-case gets you ready for extremes, planning for a few likely scenarios keeps your mind open and helps you feel prepared. But where does flexibility come in? Being adaptable in the moment is a necessary skill for leaders. People are dynamic and situations evolve. Without the ability to adapt, plans fail. Too much flexibility is also problematic - the result is a lack of focus. When constant adapting is the process in leadership situations, the result often appears to be confusing, rife with favoritism or unpredictable.
The best of both worlds, planning and flexibility, is structure. By structure, I mean clear connections between enacted values (not just aspirational values) and desired outcomes. Structure can look like a process for addressing disputes or it could be articulated expectations for work performance. When leaders have clear structures, people understand their foundational values because they are both stated and clearly present in decisions and actions. Structure also frees leaders from the need to constantly monitor the decision-making within the team. When a team is clear on goals and understands the values that underlie the processes to achieve those goals each team member is free to adapt as they follow the plan - values and the goal are the guardrails that keep team energy heading in the right direction.
Using structure to avoid the pitfalls of too many plans or too much flexibility doesn’t work when the values are assumed or the goals are unclear. It takes a leader and a team with trust to give everyone the freedom to creatively pursue the team goals while upholding the team values.
Next time you’re about to make a plan, take a moment before you start to be clear on your structure - the values and goals that are the container for your plan. Are there firm lines that are not to be crossed? Are there guiding principles all need to follow? Are there optimal and also acceptable outcomes? Are there unspoken rules or disregarded procedures plaguing the team? Maybe talk through your structure ideas with a trusted friend to make sure you’re not making assumptions.
If you start with a clear structure, the team can co-create a plan that is creative and inherently designed for everyone’s strengths. A good structure frees you and your team to take action without wasting energy. Give it a try.