Plan B - When Plan A Doesn’t Work

Military pilots fly with a very important manual strapped to their leg. This book (which they study diligently) includes something called Boldface Procedures (i.e. what to do when things go wrong). Whether an engine bursts into flames or the landing gear gets jammed in the body of the plane, these pilots already have a plan of action prepared in the event of an emergency.   It is hard to think of any organization that wouldn’t benefit from having their own Boldface Procedures from the start because very often Plan A doesn’t completely work.  Plan A is just the “takeoff” or beginning of what may become a series of plans that ultimately result in a successful venture. Being prepared for the unexpected when Plan A doesn’t work takes planning. So how do you get your plan B ready?

Plan A What-if Thinking (Planning for Things to Go Wrong)

The ideal time to create your plan B is at the beginning before anything has run amok. When you are developing your Plan A, take some time to consider what will MOST LIKELY go wrong. Whether you call this scenario, contingency, critical path, or oh - S%&t planning, you will be better prepared to adjust if you have some idea what you would do. The beauty of including what-if thinking in your Plan A is that you may be able to reduce the negative impact of possible problems when you initially consider them. For example, if you think you may need more time to deliver a product than you originally planned because of a possible delay in receiving parts, you may be able to reduce that risk initially by finding another source for those parts. At the same time, you can also plan for what you will do if the product launch is delayed.

Intelligence (Know Where You Are)

Three months ago you wrote your Plan A business plan. You put milestones in your plan. Do you know where you are compared to where you thought you would be?  Can you imagine being a passenger on a plane and half-way though the flight realizing that the pilot hasn’t bothered to use the flight plan? Ok, maybe this would work if the weather is clear and you can see the mountain up ahead but what if there are storms or the sun is setting? If you don't keep track of where you are in implementing your plan, then it doesn’t do you much good to have one.

It is important to develop a systematic way to capture and review whatever milestones and performance metrics you developed in your primary plan. How often you review this performance information will depend on the complexity of your business, but at least review your information monthly. Frequent plan review will let you catch problems earlier when (hopefully) they are smaller. Also reviewing the plan will help you stay on track much the same way a navigator checks a flight plan to make sure the plane is on course. Tip: make sure that the process for tracking and reviewing your plan performance is relatively easy. A time-consuming or complex reporting system might cause you to fall behind in evaluating your performance.

Run with It (This Might Be a Better Plan)

When disaster strikes and Plan A is parachuting out the cargo bay door, can you figure out why it happened?  Can you make this unexpected event work to your advantage?  You may not have time to do a lengthy analysis if there are growing fires to put out but what can look initially like a problem may be an opportunity to improve (well, maybe not with a burning airplane, but you get the drift).  Figure out what happened and adapt.  The Marines have it right – “Adapt and Overcome.”

Plan B Reporting (Course Correction or a New Flight Plan)

Once you have launched Plan B, what happens to plan A? Do you still report where you are against that plan or scrap it altogether? There is no prescribed answer to this. If your initial plan vision or goal is still what you want, then using those objectives to guide your decisions is helpful. If the plan has changed so much that it is meaningless or demoralizing, then let Plan A crash and burn.  Clear your mind, move forward, and focus on quickly implementing Plan B. Keep sight of your original vision, but also understand what is causing your plan changes. Is your planning process incomplete because of missing information? Were your available resources sufficient to move at the rate you planned?  Was your team really prepared?  Were you too aggressive with what was realistic for your people? Did you underestimate how wildly popular your product would be? If you don't know your business conditions, you can't plan to navigate them successfully.

Planning is not a paperwork exercise, but a critical leadership tool. Whether you hit your stride with a successful Plan B or have to keep grinding on until Plan F-22, keep planning. It will help you adapt along the way so that you can successfully land at your final destination.

* required information