Whether it's on combat operations in Afghanistan or managing multi-million dollar projects there's one word that my team have learned not to use when they're briefing me on their planned course of action.
That word is hope.
As in "hopefully the vendor will have the contract signed by Thursday" or "hopefully the helicopters will be there to get us back to base for Xbox and beer" or "hopefully the other team will complete their objective on time so we can complete ours".
Now, there's nothing wrong with the word, or indeed the concept, but for me it raises questions about the quality and depth of thinking that’s gone on behind it. Napoleon once described a leader as a dealer in hope and I believe that to be as true now as it was when he was getting a damned good kicking from Wellington at Waterloo - not that I’m biased, of course - but it’s one thing to be a dealer and another to be a user.
When someone uses the word "hopefully", I wonder to what extent they're mentally handing over control of their mission success to external forces over which they believe they have no control. Of course we may very well be operating in an environment with many factors we can't control but we can control what we think and what we do. Sure, there will always be risk - that's the reality of operating in a VUCA environment - but there's a world of difference between taking risks and taking chances. Taking risk is a conscious and considered choice; blindly hoping for the best is leaving everything to chance.
It was Mike Tyson who said it so eloquently - everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. In my experience, every plan I ever made was perfect - at least until I started to implement it. I learnt, through painful experience, that Plan A is more than just Step 1, Step 2 and so on. It's only complete if we've covered off on...
- Assumptions - we can never plan with full information and so assumptions fill that gap. What I want to know is what you’re doing to validate them and allow for when they’re wrong.
- Actions on - a military term for contingency plans for the reasonably foreseeable dramas - the “action on X occurring is that we’ll do Y”. When things go bad, time is never your friend and so it’s always better to do your thinking over a coffee rather than under the pump.
- Abort criteria - old pilots will tell you of a disease called “press-on-itis” and how it kills inexperienced pilots because they get fixated on the end goal rather than reacting rationally to badly deteriorating conditions. It can be a lifesaver to pre-determine under what circumstances you’re going to let discretion be the better part of valour and cancel the project or task rather than throwing resources at a losing proposition.
In other words - always have a Plan B and know when to switch to it.
And if you've got time, you may as well think about Plan C because when Plan A takes a nosedive, you’ll need a new Plan B.