This is the story of George. George is an executive at a large manufacturing plant employing approximately 250 people. Throughout his career, he’s been called the golden boy or the one with the golden touch. Everything he’s ever set out to do professionally has turned out exactly as he planned.
So, naturally, when it came time to expand the facility to accommodate the large part orders they anticipated, he went about it with the same rigor he applied to anything he did: plan, plan, and then plan some more. He was confident that his success was due to his meticulous planning efforts, and he was not about to change his methods now. After all, he had been rewarded handsomely for this all his life. In his mind, George knew he was GREAT, and life confirmed it for him every damn day.
He worked with his team to create an execution plan for the strategic initiative, which called for another building equal in size to the current building and adjoined by a “work corridor.” He envisioned beautiful offices lining the work corridor connecting the two plants, and they would be filled with all the plant managers and administrative staff—including a beautiful, big office for George that looked out over all he had created.
Once the plan was solid in his mind, he went about lining up the various resources to get it built, and the permits sailed through like clockwork, and construction began. Once again, George was on track for yet another win and another big, fat bonus! He could envision the Maserati he had ordered and the safari to Africa that he was going to take with his perfect wife and 2.4 children. Life was good for Golden Boy George!
Not long after construction began, rumors that the anticipated “big order” might not be as big as they all expected started to surface. The airline industry was starting to slow, and there were some regulatory issues with the winglets for that particular model of plane. The sales head brought the concern to George, but George dismissed it offhand, saying it was just a rumor, and forged ahead with the plan. He was certainly not going to let anyone or anything get in the way of his plan. This had been identified as a possible threat when they were doing their SWOT and was dismissed as implausible. Therefore, according to George, it would not happen.
The new plant had reached about 90 percent completion when the engineers discovered a potential problem with the connecting work corridor. They determined it might be subject to flooding due to a small creek running adjacent to the plant, which had a propensity to flood every hundred years or so.
Did George want to elevate that section of the building? “Absolutely not,” said George. The plan was in place, and it was highly unlikely they would have that level of threat—it was not in the plan. He was really getting irritated by all these interruptions to his plan. Why couldn’t they just trust his golden instincts?
Within six months the plant was complete, resplendent in its glory, and George was more than pleased with himself that the construction wrapped up on time, on budget, and—most importantly—on plan. He invited the board and local dignitaries for the ribbon-cutting, and all was right with the world. George could not wait to pick up his new Maserati and had booked the safari. Life was good as long as you stuck to the plan!
Two days after the ribbon-cutting, the airplane manufacturer put its standing order for winglets on hold. George was not worried; he had been through downturns before. His competitors would have difficulties, not George. He continued with hiring and production as if the order was unchanged, believing it would be just a delay, not a cancellation. This was in their plan, after all. Two weeks after the grand opening, the standing order was canceled. George was frozen. There was nothing golden about this. He had never had one of his plans go awry, and he was confused—what was happening? He had a plan, right?
George and the sales team tried to resurrect the order, but the airline had a clause that allowed them to cancel the order without consequences, so there was nothing they could do. George was furious the airline was not adhering to the plan—it was wrong of them!
To add to George’s troubles, the rainy season had begun, and with twice the average annual rainfall! Some were predicting an infamous hundred-year flood. The engineers implored George to do something to protect the building, particularly the beloved work corridor. However, George was too distracted by the canceled order to pay attention to any of the warning flags the engineers were waving.
A week later, the nearby river, and consequently the creek George had been warned about, started to overflow its banks. Within a day the entire work corridor was two feet underwater, and both plants were at risk of flooding as well. George was now in a full-scale panic—so much so that he was still sitting in his pristine new office in the work corridor with water up to his knees. His assistant called the plant managers to come and get him out, but he refused to move—frozen in fear because his “plan” had fallen apart. He couldn’t understand it had been so perfect in his mind. What was happening?
They finally called 9-1-1. George had to be rescued and sent away to a rehab facility due to a mental breakdown. No safari, no Maserati, no bonus, a completely ruined plant, bankruptcy, and—most concerning to George—a failed plan.
LET’S GET REAL
Moral of the story? Be flexible to avoid the otherwise inevitable failure. The plan needs to bend when the circumstances that the plan was built on change.
Good old George did not have a flexible bone in his body and could not see how to do anything differently than he always had. Having never experienced failure, he ignored critical information that might have allowed him to alter his path. When certainty and ego are involved, crucial questions never get asked, let alone answered.
George may seem like a far-fetched caricature of an out-of-touch white-collar executive, but he’s all too familiar. Mistakes happen, Mother Nature happens, accidents happen, people change their minds, and all can be dealt with as they happen. But only if the plan and the people involved are ready for the unexpected.
No plan is perfect, and a perfectly executed plan left unchanged in the face of new information is just as bad as having no plan at all—doomed to failure. Good leaders know how to be flexible and are always watching the horizon for those things that might have changed—consequently requiring a change in plans. It’s not sacrilegious; it’s good planning.