Skip to main content

A Plan is Useful Fiction: How Realistic Can it Be?

Plans are useful fictions. Like any fiction, a plan may be more or less realistic.

Plans are made up by their authors based on past experience, wishful thinking or pessimism, fear or courage. Ideally, they are created to set the stage for successful performance though with the understanding that they do not guarantee it.

Some plans are created to convince people to either do or not do a project. Others, to provide an objective view of what might happen as a basis for decision making and project performance. The best ones consider risk under a variety of scenarios.


With that as a background, let’s look at a scenario in which an organizational change is being considered, one that is to insource a business function, transportation in a manufacturing company. The function has been performed by several trusted vendors for decades.

A new senior management team believes that the firm can save money, protect the firm from risks like strikes by union drivers or vendors going bankrupt, and provide improved customer service.

They have not fully tested their hypothesis nor have they considered the effort and duration required to make the change. They have, though, set a target – insource a significant number of routes within nine months, to coincide with the start of the busy shipping season.

A small team was charged with “making it happen.” The team was made up of people who reported to a mid-level executive who was three levels below the senior executives and was responsible for logistics.

The team had little or no direct contact with the senior executives who were sponsoring the project. Instead, they were directed by members of the senior executive’s staff who were left to interpret the executives’ desires and ensure that the responsibility for getting them met was delegated to the right people.

The designated team faced some interesting challenges. The first was to define the real objectives and constraints in concrete terms so project success criteria and expectations could be set. For example, what does “significant” mean; was this a pilot project to test the executives’ hypothesis; is doing it in nine months a must or nice to have?

Getting answers to questions like these when dealing directly with project sponsors is difficult. Getting them when dealing through intermediaries is far more of a challenge. One never really knows whether the answers are coming from the sponsors or the intermediaries who are interpreting and filtering the executives desires based on their personal hopes, fears, and perspectives.

In this case, the team, not getting a straight answer regarding the number of routes, put forth a number that amounted to about 5% of the routes, something they considered doable and sufficient to get a sense of the feasibility and effectiveness of going through with the total insourcing. “That isn’t enough” was the response, though no firm number was offered.

The team decided that rather than playing a negotiating game to get to the right number they would postpone and take another approach.

A feasibility study and cost-benefits analysis were recommended by the team, only to be rejected because the executives felt that it was just an excuse not to dive in and do the work.

Planning as a Decision Making Tool

The next step was to develop a plan, starting with the identification of the activities that would be required to insource a significant number of routes that was greater than 5% of the total.

The team’s thinking was that if they laid out a plan that identified all the work that needed to be done and came up with some proposed timelines based on a couple of alternative approaches, they could get a sense of whether any number of routes could be insourced in the desired time frame. This would give them confidence in their chance of success and give them a vehicle for managing expectations. They would rely on logic and the good sense to reality check the feasibility of achieving the goals.

{module ad 300×100 Large mobile}

Quickly, by brainstorming, a high-level work breakdown/activities list was developed identifying activities that included deciding on the approach to take (e.g., whether to acquire an existing firm and make it a division of the company or to build the transportation capability from scratch), hiring and onboarding, staff, managing legal issues such as new contracts, contracts with existing vendors, choosing and acquiring trucks, obtaining garage and depot facilities, obtaining permits and licenses, arranging for insurance, establishing IT and business systems and procedures, and managing relationships with the existing vendors and the unions that represented their drivers, and more.

Dependencies were discussed and applied as were very high-level duration “guesstimates.” Quickly it was seen that the nine-month window to get any number of routes insourced was a pipe dream. The approach to acquiring an existing firm required months of searching for the right candidates, selecting one and negotiating a deal with them and then getting them started. If the search and negotiations did not result in a deal, then the work required to start up a trucking department was even more time and effort consuming.

A risk analysis identified obstacles that might be faced. For example, negative reactions by existing vendors, their drivers, and their unions, uncertainties regarding the selection of a firm to acquire, the duration of contractual negotiations, legal and regulatory issues, IT systems integration issues, financial and administrative issues, disruption in shipping during the busy season, etc.

Rationality – Does it Prevail?

After a couple of weeks during which the team planned, estimated, got input from others both inside and outside of the firm, played what-if games, and identified alternative approaches, the team was ready with a presentation. They concluded that it would take at least 18 months to do anything substantive and that final decisions should not be made until after exploring options and risks more thoroughly.

They presented their findings to the sponsor’s staff who were directing the effort. The staff appreciated the work that had been done and agreed that the way it looked in the plan, the target date was not realistic. However, they were not willing to take the argument to their leaders. While not saying it, they did not want to be the bearers of bad news and feared that the sponsors would become angry and force the team to push on anyway. They recommended that the team go back and “sharpen their pencils” to make the project more feasible.

As was said, plans are useful fictions that may be more or less realistic.

You can make a plan to do anything in any amount of time at any cost. Whether that plan can be actualized is another question. You would think that the objective of planning would be to get a true sense of what might happen. But here we have an example of someone wanting to make the plan look good, where looking good means satisfying initial expectations, regardless of probable outcomes.

Creating an unrealistic plan whether to sell an idea or to satisfy irrational demands of clients and sponsors sweeps reality under the rug. It will resurface at some point. While there may be exceptions, it is better to deal with reality as early as possible. Set expectations that can be met to avoid the fallout that comes when expectations are not met.

Next Steps

The Project team and its direct management are left with a decision – do they follow the lead of their sponsor’s staff and revise the plan, knowing that failure will be blamed on the planners and performers, or do they confront and insist upon the delivery of their message directly to the sponsors.

What would you do?

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

Comments (7)