"Go Take That Hill": What Happens When Leaders Neglect Basic Planning

Joel Trammell

Posted by Joel Trammell
September 1, 2017

Your team can't function without a plan. Here's how to create one.

Imagine an army facing a difficult battle. The general brings together his troops, points to the horizon, and shouts, “Go take that hill!” 

That’s it. When asked how this feat is to be accomplished, the general explains that everyone should just do what they do best and get it done. Meanwhile, the general himself is going to go off and work on fixing the tanks.

In this scenario, how well do you think the assault will go? The troops will likely struggle to organize themselves and prevent a disaster. There will be factions that break off, thinking they alone have the best strategy for the attack. Other groups will be reluctant to engage at all, so they will meander toward the hill without making real progress. And there will of course be some who sneak off and desert their fellow soldiers.

The general, back at the tanks, is performing an important job—fixing the tanks is urgent—but without a clear battle plan, this division has no chance of success. Only the general can facilitate that planning, and he failed in that duty.

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Whack-a-mole leadership

I’m sure you recognize this as an analogy to the way many companies are run. The CEO fails to develop a clear plan for how the organization will achieve its objectives. That leads to organizational dysfunctions familiar to anyone who’s worked in Corporate America: infighting, pointless tasks, disengagement from the mission, and so on. 

Developing a plan of action is one of the fundamental responsibilities of the CEO. The problem is, it’s a lot easier to set a broad goal (“Earn $1 million in revenue,” for example) and then expect people to just go do it. Proper planning requires the CEO to expend time and effort. He must step back and analyze what needs to happen across teams for the objective to be achieved. He finds himself answering questions he didn’t even know existed until he sat down and thought about it.

However, like the general described above, many leaders give out a vague directive and then go off to work on the first problem that catches their attention. This results in the leader addressing a series of crises like she’s playing whack-a-mole. The whack-a-mole mode offers less resistance—you have a very clear problem to address, which feels good—but it harms everyone in the long run. When you’re an employee of this type of organization, it’s hard to know what to do in your role. 

Everyone is running around fighting fires, but nothing of consequence is being achieved.

Genghis Khan: Military success through active planning

In Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker uses Genghis Khan as an example of a leader who broke out of whack-a-mole mode and used purposeful planning to, essentially, conquer the world.

Genghis Khan lived in a time and place—Mongolia in the early twelfth century—where everyone “on the steppe was always reacting to whatever awful thing had recently been perpetrated on them,” whether bride-snatching, murder, or theft. Barker writes that Genghis Khan “stepped outside of this vicious cycle. He did not merely react. He thought about what he wanted. And he made plans.”

Rather than continue retaliating to short-term offenses made by neighboring tribes, Genghis Khan stepped back and planned. He didn’t tell his people to “Go conquer Europe.” He put forth a vision and developed plans for how the Mongols would realize it. A few examples of Genghis Khan’s planning:

  • He brought three to five extra horses for each fighter and encouraged living off the land, increasing his army’s speed and mobility.
  • He formed his army into independent units that would descend upon enemies in a swarm, attacking from all sides.
  • He employed false retreats to fake out the enemy before redoubling in an unexpected second attack.
  • He recruited the best men from defeated armies, incorporating them into his own forces.

This type of intentional planning was new to Mongol military leaders, and allowed Genghis Khan to defeat civilizations far more populous and technologically advanced than his own. As Barker writes, “Genghis Khan did not blindly react to problems. He thought about what he wanted. He made plans. And then he imposed his will on the world.”

Planners win in business, too

If historical anecdotes don’t convince you, data from today supports the idea that CEOs who plan come out ahead. Take this field study of 354 CEOs of Indian manufacturing firms, conducted by the London School of Economics: 

The research team identified two types of CEOs. The first engaged in advance planning . . . . The second type of CEO was less likely to plan ahead . . . . The most successful were the planners, who were linked to higher firm-level productivity and profitability.

Another study of 280 US firms found that firms where top management had a high commitment to strategic planning saw significantly higher sales volume and net income. 

I’ve also seen firsthand the benefits of planning in every business I’ve been a part of. The most effective leaders I’ve seen are those who can step off the hamster wheel, develop a vision, and give their team a compelling plan for how to make the vision reality. Performance goes up. Employee stress goes down. And people actually get excited about the future. 

Note: Good plans are adaptive

For those prone to micromanagement, don’t take this as license to write a plan that dictates exactly what each employee should be doing. That may have worked back in the time of Frederick Taylor, who boasted that under scientific management, “the work of every workman is fully planned out by management at least one day in advance.” 

Try that approach today, especially with a Millennial knowledge worker, and you will quickly see the problem. Yes, your team needs a plan, but you must master the balance between not having a plan at all and overprescribing specific actions. The former leads to chaos, like that leaderless army trying to take the hill. The latter leads to resistance from employees and a stamping out of creativity and innovation. 

A plan for planning

After decades in the CEO chair, my current mission involves helping other CEOs develop clear plans that energize their teams and lead to real results. That’s what we’re doing at Khorus.

Here’s a brief plan for how to make a plan, whether you use Khorus or not. 

1. Develop your strategy. A good plan always has a well-thought-out strategy behind it. Use these ten questions to create strategic clarity in your organization.

2. Select corporate objectives. Within the framework of your strategy, choose a few specific, measurable objectives you need to achieve in the coming ninety days (three to five objectives is a good start). Here are some examples. Remember not to be reactive: take a day or two to think this over, discuss it with your executive team, and ensure that you’re doing what’s important rather than what feels urgent

3. Build out the plan companywide. Now, share your corporate objectives with the whole company and put them where people will see them at least once a week. Ask each manager to choose a set of appropriate goals for their own team that align with corporate objectives.

Managers should then collaborate with their direct reports, ensuring they all have goals that fit into the plan. Remember, autonomy is critical: employees should be asked how they can best contribute to company/team objectives, not told what their goals are. 

This should happen in a cascade down the company, resulting in a full playbook: company objectives recorded, along with what each department, team, and individual is going to do to advance those objectives. Now your company has a plan. They know what hill they’re going to take, and how they’re going to take it.

4. Monitor your plan. Recognize that no plan will play out like you expect. Keep lines of communication open so you know quickly when parts of the plan are going awry. Then collaborate to address the obstacle.

5. Revise your plan. Once the quarter is over, have everyone revisit their part of the plan. How did it go? What assumptions need to change? What new opportunities are there? Use your learnings to create a new proactive plan for next quarter.

Both you and your workforce will feel a new sense of purpose and clarity when you do planning well. As Peter Drucker noted: “Without an action plan, the executive becomes a prisoner of events.” I would add that, lacking a plan, so does the rest of the organization.

Planning—and its partner, execution—take effort. Khorus makes the process simpler and more effective than ever. Schedule your demo today!

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Joel Trammell

Joel Trammell

Joel Trammell is the founder and chairman of Khorus Software. He currently serves as CEO of Black Box Network Services. His book, The CEO Tightrope, is a guide to the chief-executive role.

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