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Post-Planning Syndrome: When Our Plans Go Nowhere

[An article Katrina wrote for the Baptist Union of Victoria Blog]

What happens after you’ve had the planning meetings, dreamed the big dreams and coined the pithy and inspirational catch phrase?  What happens after the beautiful PowerPoint slides have been created and the  launch of the new vision is over?

Hopefully people are excited and they pull together and make the plan a reality.  But that’s not always our experience, in fact, that’s mostly not my experience.  Plans stall, people move on, support dries up and energy shifts.  I’m not talking about adjusting plans in response to significant changes in our context.  I’m talking about when the clarity and excitement of the ‘new plan’ begins to look like wishful thinking and the plan itself languishes on the shelf.

I call it ‘Post-Planning Syndrome’, the gradual descent to the default.   Where we ease back into the same old discussions.  It’s a kind of collective amnesia, we forget that during the planning process we made some decisions.  We start to get anxious, quietly backing away from any changes in preference for the status quo.

It’s not that our plans was bad; mostly I think we’re reasonably good at planning.  It’s not that we don’t want to move forward towards the future we’ve envisaged; our visions of the future are always improvements on today.  It’s just that, well…it’s not as easy as we thought it would be and the energy required to make it happen is more than we have.

People are becoming increasingly cynical about ‘strategic planning’ or any planning processes in general.  Our experience is that the energy expended in the planning process is a blip, an annual exercise in stargazing that either never gets off the ground or never gets grounded.

Why?  I don’t think it’s because people are lazy, I think it’s because we fail to count the personal cost and we over-estimate people’s level of commitment.

Failing to Count the Personal Cost

We think carefully about the resources the plan requires, we map out steps, define milestones and assign accountabilities – but we don’t think about what the plan is asking of me.

Many of our plans go nowhere because we plan as if it isn’t personal – that we won’t have to change, everyone else will.  And even if we do recognise we’ll have to change, we don’t spend enough time thinking specifically and concretely about what changes it will require of us.

Jesus’ mission statement about the availability of the Kingdom of God had radical implications for his life and the lives of his followers.  The disciples are personally transformed ‘on the way’, as they live out the mission they’ve been given.  In the gospels, mission and discipleship always go together.  We pursue the mission out of our discipleship, and in the midst of pursuing the mission, we change and grow in all sorts of ways.

What if in our churches we approached planning as part of the journey of discipleship rather than as a tool for organisational change?  How would your planning be different if we recognised that our Church will only change at the same rate that we do?

It would mean that our planning processes would address questions like:

  • What do I sense God is inviting me to learn or know or grow in this season?
  • What tension will this plan potentially cause in my life and relationships?
  • What habits of the soul, mind and body do I need to let go of or develop to support this plan?
  • What kind of leadership style does this vision require and how comfortable am I with that?
  • What support do I therefore need in consistently moving towards this vision overtime?

Over-Estimating People’s Level Of Commitment

The second thing that compromises our planning efforts is that we tend to think that because we’ve agreed a plan, everyone is equally committed to the plan.  Of course, when we say it like that, we know it’s not true in reality, but the point is that we behave as if it were true. Our operating assumption is that at the launch of the plan everyone is more of less 100% committed to the vision and willing to embrace whatever changes must be made to see the vision realised.  When overtime this assumption proves false, we tell ourselves that people’s commitment level has gradually deflated like a balloon and this is why things have stalled or there is resistance.

Where as, the reality is that commitment moves in the opposite direction – most people start off with a low level of commitment that grows overtime as they see the plan come to life and are drawn into a deeper understanding of the compelling nature of the vision.

Here are a few questions that might help us to think about this in relation to your plans:

  • What if your plans recognised that people are likely to have a low level of commitment upfront?  How would that change what you do or how you do it?
  • Have you as a leadership team talked honesty about your own commitment levels in relation to the vision and plan?  What are your expectations of each other?
  • What feedback mechanisms are you going to use to help you to monitor commitment levels as you progress?

Working the Plan from the Inside & the Outside

So much of our planning starts with what is ‘out there’.  We strain our eyes trying to see the future materialising in the distance, while we are largely blind to what the way forward will require of us personally.

What if we listened more closely to the movement of God’s spirit in our lives?  If we attended as much to where we actually are on the journey of discipleship to where we want to go?  If our planning was more about naming the places in our lives – individually and collectively – that God is inviting us to open more fully to the work of his grace?

I know that if I did this, my plans would be less heroic and more humble.  More deeply grounded in what God is doing in the world in and in the Church and therefore more realistic.

I also suspect that together we would do greater things than we can imagine as we enter more fully into this wonderful adventure of life with God.  That in the ebb and flow of life on the way, one small step would lead to another, which would strengthen our love and commitment and enable us to take another step and so on it would go.

This is the kind of planning that would give me energy, that I can actually imagine myself delighting in and whole-heartedley pursuing.