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Blinded by the plan

I drive a Toyota Highlander. The Hybrid. I once detested SUVs but bit the bullet a couple of years ago when my son began playing on a travel hockey team. Those 200+ mile weekend trips and a huge equipment bag changed my world view. The hybrid helps me rationalize the decision. But, I must admit—recall and all—I love my Highlander.

One thing I love is the GPS. It makes use of a map provided on a CD available when I bought the car two and a half years ago. As good as the map is, it is out-of-date and incomplete. Occasionally I’ll look at the map and see that the illustrated roads have disappeared and my car appears to be traveling through space like a triangular spacecraft from the original Asteroids video game. I am a modern day Lewis or Clark. I love it when that happens.

Maps are like plans. They’re great when they tell us where we want to go and what we want to do. But things change. Conditions change. Needs change. New options reveal themselves. We have to be prepared to fly into the unknown.

Recently, Peter Bregman blogged about this in Harvard Business Review—Don’t Get Distracted By Your Plan. He relates a lesson he learned getting lost hiking a trail:

… a dangerous thing happens when we follow a trail: we stop paying attention to the environment. Since the trail is so easy to follow, we allow our minds to wander and neglect to observe where we are.

Then we forge ahead, moving with speed and purpose, right to the point where we look up and realize, like I did that day, that the environment around us is no longer recognizable. Our focus blinded us.

We live in a time when our competitive environment can change so quickly and profoundly that it means blindly following a plan can be a very risky business behavior. Maps, plans and spreadsheets are only valuable when they are in service to people who have somewhere to go—not when those people are slaves to the plans.

As we create organizational culture, we have to make sure that our work forces are prepared and comfortable looking up from their plans, evaluating the environmental changes that are occurring around them, and adjusting their path.

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