Plan early, plan twice?

Photo by Hugo Rocha on Unsplash

Our leadership team has had the same conversation with staff for the last 3 weekends:

Friday afternoon: “Ok, we are all set for Monday.  Thanks for the hours of planning this week to get this right…”

Saturday morning: “Ah, sorry to interrupt your weekend.  New changes just announced.  New plan needed for Monday…”

It feels at times over the last 547 days that I have been living in some sort of Edge of Tomorrow time-loop of Live, Die, Repeat*.  That feeling of having to keep going back to the beginning is emotionally exhausting (for everyone).  In fact, leading through COVID is possibly the most demanding thing I have ever been asked to do.

I used to think that the saying “plan early, plan twice” was convenient wisdom that could be rolled out when people got away with their own last-minute planning.  But the truth is that in particularly dynamic environments, where the variables are constantly changing, it makes a lot of sense to wait until the last safe moment to commit to a particular course of action.   This is possibly why I have often heard it coming from experienced military commanders.  

Last week, we somehow managed to deliver our leaving graduates a lovely celebration that has been in the planning stage for over 12 months.  In the end, close to the 11th hour, it was split into 6 separate events on campus, including a Livestream – and was possibly the 7th different version of what was a ‘finalized’ plan.  “Plan early, plan 7 times”…doesn’t quite have the same ring does it?  With hindsight, one might wonder if next year we should plan to avoid 11 months of guessing, anticipating, worrying, fretting…and just hold off planning anything until a few weeks before the event?  I am not so sure.  My suspicion is that it was only possible to navigate all the last-minute changes needed as a result of all the learning that had taken place in the previous planning months.  Dwight Eisenhower once said that “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”.  That makes a lot of sense to me too.

But for all our exhaustive planning for the perfect graduation, which was as likely to be canceled as run, it was just one calendared event amongst many that we have successfully planned and delivered this year.  Looking back at a successful graduation event it is very difficult to contemplate whether all the effort was worth it.  Of course, it was.  But what of all the hundreds of other (dare I say less glamorous?) events that have taken this year – equally impacted by COVID?  I wonder if there are any compounding effects to so much uncertainty?  Or am I making too much to it?  

In more normal contexts, the phrase that I heard from my tailor last week (yeah…I know…that’s not normal but I needed something to wear for the graduation at the last minute!) is to “measure twice, cut once”.  In simple terms, he was telling me of the wisdom of investing extra time in the planning process in order to avoid any mistakes.  Looking back, this seems to be the default model for this school and a reason why it is so successful, I think.

We have started planning for next year – and I have already heard several times: “do you think we will be able to do this face-to-face next year, or shall we plan for virtual?”.   What should I advise my staff?  What wisdom do I share?  Don’t plan too early?  Or start planning now for both eventualities?  And if the latter, how do I take responsibility for how exhausting that will be at a time when I want to prioritize health and well-being?  

Like I said, leading through COVID is incredibly tough, but it’s also really important to get it right…I had better start planning for Monday.


*Edge of Tomorrow is a film I enjoy with Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, released in 2014 and based on the 2004 short novel “All You Need is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

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