Planning for Gray

I was recently asked by an up-and-coming 20-something professional how I juggled motherhood with a high-stress professional career. It was clear that this individual was a high achiever intent on laying out a detailed plan for her future. I applaud her (and at one time resembled her) efforts to chart a well-thought-out course to reach explicit goals. That’s what we all want to do as leaders, right . . . chart a definitive course to reach clear goals? Except it never really happens in the neat sequential way that we think it will.

Fairy tales might be written in black and white, but for the rest of us, life tends to happen in shades of gray. We know this, right? Why, then, do we have a tendency to develop such specific plans and timelines that assume things will fall into place exactly as outlined in goal number three, objective four, tactic number forty-seven? Worse yet, we get thrown off course trying to figure out how to respond to an unanticipated variable that was not even considered as part of our 52-page plan.

Please don’t hear me say that I think plans aren’t important. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a diehard planner. I just happen to think you get farther faster by identifying the end goal, charting a general direction to get there, and then leaving the rest, well, a little gray.

Planning this way allows you to be more nimble. You aren’t “changing the plan” . . . you have built into the plan the ability to zig or zag as variables change, allowing you to proactively take advantages of new opportunities rather than having to go back to the drawing board to adapt and recalibrate your roadmap. As I’ve shared before, my organization’s strategic framework goals fit on one page. One. And we have experienced significant growth — both in terms of individuals served and bottom line fiscal health — since taking this strategic approach that actually plans for a good measure of gray.

In the military they call this commander’s intent. As planful as the military is, they recognize that unexpected situations arise. If everyone knows the end goal — the commander’s intent — they can respond to new variables in such a way that the end goal can still be met. That seems so simple, and yet so few organizations seem to function this way. Why? Lack of trust in your staff members’ instincts, loss of control, fear of taking a misstep . . . the list of reasons is long, but the result is the same. Black and white thinking limits your possibilities for success.

So what did I tell my 20-something friend about career and motherhood? Basically that there would be a lot of people telling how she “needed” to do things (stay-at-home, work part-time, structure her hours, etc.), but she had to decide what was the best fit for her family (her end goals) and make her choices accordingly. That might mean adjusting her career plans, or having multiple back-ups to balance everything, or even occasionally having her kids play under her desk in the midst of a busy office environment . . .

In short, I told her to plan for gray . . . and enjoy the ride!

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