How Contingency Plans Cause People to Perform Worse and Try Less
Will Smith said, “There is no reason to have plan “B” because it distracts from plan “A”.
Jihae Shin and Katherine Milkman, from Wharton School research found that merely thinking about a backup plan caused people to perform worse and try less.
The road not taken:
The road not taken is delightfully seductive. But the path you chose has the disappointments of the real world.
Your real spouse is messier than an imagined partner.
Real decisions are soiled with reality.
The path you didn’t choose is a fantasy without disappointments.
Develop and explore three or four options before choosing plan A. Make a decision. Nuke alternatives. Move forward wholeheartedly.
Once you’ve made a decision, options dilute commitment.
5 dangers of plan B:
- Second guessing.
- Drained energy.
- Paralyzed progress.
Perhaps the worst danger in decision-making is using fantasies – the road not taken – to judge realities.
What about contingency plans:
The question isn’t “Will something unexpected happen, it’s when.” Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.”
#1. A leader’s contingency plan is to adapt as you go, not before you begin.
Prepare to adapt. Give yourselves permission to address shortfalls and disappointments quickly and openly. “If we fall 5% below our goal, the team will reconvene immediately.”
#2. The Wharton team suggests outsourcing contingency planning to another team within your organization.
The search for certainty is a catastrophic waste of time. Find enough confidence for the next step and take it. Repeat.
How might leaders navigate tensions between wholehearted commitment to one plan and developing contingency plans?
Don’t miss the followup to this post: 5 WAYS TO TEACH PEOPLE HOW TO FAIL RESPONSIBLY
Outstanding blog today Dan. Leaders seek wisdom to make a develop a plan, have courage to execute the plan even when it is hard.
Great seeing you here, Dan. Going all-in produces more value than half-in. It just feels riskier.
I know Plan A will work because I have no Plan B. (Although I suspect Plan A will have minor adjustments along the way.)
I think you captured the idea, Duane. But, I start feeling like it’s a self-justifying circle. ???
Circumstances can change plans, Plan “A” is always the intent, plan “B” develops if plan “A” needs creative methods beyond the plan. Nothing is written in stone, our intent is the grail, the execution is the mission.
Hey Tim. Love the grail/mission illustration.
I’ll have to think about this one a bit more, as it’s certainly thought-provoking (and requires unique application for each of our industries/jobs).
My company has a lot of clients/partnerships and often lacks contingency plans for if/when things go wrong. But, after your post, the more important thing might be, “do we have people trained and willing to adapt?”
And I should say, we DO have a lot of those great people. But we could do more to build that as a strength among all of us!
Hey James. You bring up something so useful. How are we training people to adapt as they go? Wow…that’s fantastic.
There is the challenge of knowing when to press forward or adapt. It’s not easy.
“do we have people trained and willing to adapt?” – should be an can adapt. Adapting to change is the hardest skill to teach, it is more of a you have it or you don’t. Every Plan A will go awry in some shape or form, sticking to the overall end goal, with adjustments in between is called success.
On “Mike Tyson said, ‘Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth’ & #1. A leader’s contingency plan is to adapt as you go, not before you begin”… reminded me of a corresponding quote from Napoleon Bonaparte: “No plan survives the first shot from the enemy”.
Thanks Thorben. Another good quote. As James indicates above, agility and adaptability is a valuable asset we need to focus on more.
I am confused by this article on whether you think we should have a contingency plan or we shouldn’t. My thought, have a well thought out, strategic plan, don’t get paralysis by analysis, make the rubber meet the road and monitor and adjust as you go along. All cliché’s, but they have helped me be productive.
Hi Patrick. I think we’re on the same page. I wonder if the distinction between making contingency plans and adapting as you go is confusing.
You got me thinking about timing. Contingency plans happen before the fact. Adapt as you go happens in the moment.
The goal is to have a well thought out Plan “A” and make any adjustments as the plan is executed. Think about it, a need for a back up plan could mean that Plan “A” was not fully developed. Any ideals and thoughts for a Plan “B” could have been included into Plan “A”.
LOL. Good one. If you have a plan B, maybe you should incorporate it into plan A.
However, some contingency plans are built around an imagined set of circumstances the make Plan A ineffective or irrelevant.
I’ve found that this approach works brilliantly until Plan A fails, at which point higher management will crucify me for not having had a Plan B.
Thanks Mitch. How leaders respond to “failure” is the determining factor in developing a learning environment. Push failure learning ends!
Your observation is sad but true. I hear leaders refer to working through problems as fixing fires. This approach reflects an attitude about problems/failures that creates stress, lowers boldness, and adds a negative label to something that should be a learning moment.
A current management fad in the UK is counting and recording people’s mistakes. It’s a classic MacNamara fallacy, but hey, it’s easy to count and rank, there’s a top and a bottom, so what could possibly go wrong? Sadly, most leaders don’t give a damn what you learned – only what impact that mistake had on this week’s bottom line.
Thanks Mitch. Short-sighted, but often true.
A very powerful concept, Dan. Explore alternatives, choose one, and stick with it until it succeeds or is unworkable. Many strategic approaches will get to success, but changing strategic direction unless absolutely required for survival almost always results in very bad results. To quote James, “he who wavers is like a wave of the sea, drifting with the wind and tossed.” Ships in a sea may experience waves, but go from port to port.
Thanks Marc. Love your point that many approaches will get to success. When we believe there is one “perfect” path forward we waste time looking for it. When things don’t go perfectly, we look for someone or something to blame.
There is definitely some merit in the concept of “burning the boats” to ensure commitment. But I think the bigger issue that is touched on is when and how to adapt (because you will have to adapt – as all the quotes highlight). I think where most people and plans fall down is they don’t spend the time to think through and explicitly capture the assumptions the plan is based on. Every plan is based on a lot of assumptions. If you capture the assumptions you get two benefits 1) you can test the assumptions early and 2) when you uncover an assumption doesn’t hold, it is a clear signal you need to adapt. Assumptions are like termites – they silently eat away at the foundation until the plan collapses.
Thanks Trevor. It might go like this. We assume that 10 calls a day will result in 3 sales. In reality 10 calls a day produces 4 sales. Or, on the downside 2. It’s time to step back and adapt.
Success and failure seem to suggest different types of adapting.
I love the concept of a Plan B = adapt. Formal, set firm structure is a very hard thing for some to release. They become paralyzed by the notion of being ‘unprepared’. I see it in my work here. In our leadership development work our Plan A = Facilitation…introduce concepts and let the attendees determine direction. Adapt to their input, their needs.
I have seen others though that their Plan A = Presentation, down the finest detail. That unfortunately creates the focus on the presenters need for control, not the attendee’s need for relevance. In this scenario…when the conversation goes LEFT, the presenter is unable to effectively adapt. Presenter frustrated, attendee unheard.
Love your insight. My inner control freak is freaking out right now. One reason we don’t adapt is our control freak views it as failure. It’s helpful to know this, even if it’s still a challenge to deal with it.
I produce festivals. My team and I look back after each festival to glean lessons that can be applied to our next event. There is always something that we can improve upon and do better. Most of the lessons are not things that we have overlooked or left out. They are things we would not have learned if we had not had the event. We learn and grow from our mistakes (and the mistakes of others).
I recently shared a quote on social media. I don’t know the source, but I really like the message: “If it doesn’t kill you, you’ll learn from it. If it does kill you, I’ll learn from it”
The letter “B” comes after “A” for a reason. We limit our potential when we limit the lessons.
Thanks KC. The quote made me laugh… love it! Perhaps it’s not too comforting for the one that got killed, but the point is well put. 🙂
I’m with you. After action meetings are prime opportunities to elevate performance next time.
It occurs to me that I spend a lot of time teaching people an improvement model which focusses on 3 questions – what are you aiming for? How will you know if your change is an improvement? What changes could you make to improve how well you currently meet this aim? Using a Plan, Do, Study, Act approach encourages adaptation based on feedback at each review cycle. Sometimes the problem I see is people focussed on the detail, rather than the destination. The aim remains Plan A, but the planning of small cycles of change is the adaptation maybe?
Just throwing an opinion out there – I’m not a regular contributor but am always reading your posts and everyone else’s comments…feeling brave today 😉
Hey Margo. I love your questions. The other thing that really speaks to me is keep the destination in mind. It’s so easy to get lost in the weeds.
Sometimes I think of coaching as throwing people a rope – pulling them up to look around – and lowering them back down into the action.
P.S. I sure hope you feel brave more often!
This is one of your best posts – and the comments are great as well. You (and commenters) have nailed the concept of planning with contingencies. I also think it’s great to use “private sector business leadership analogies” in the tactical world and vice versa where we consider all options, contingencies and “what if’s” before we arrive at Plan A. Once we develop Plan A, we brief it with our participants (“stakeholders”) and other changes may occur based on their input. Often times, Plan B is really an adaption or modification of Plan A – it could be called Plan A Version 2. Reminds me of yet another quote to share herein; “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Thanks, Dan – and others!
Thanks SGT! A good word from you means a lot to me.
It’s been interesting to read how people approach Plan B. Your descriptions really emphasizes creating the best possible plan A.
Perhaps the value of not relying on plan B is that it motivates us to make a better plan A.
I think having a back up plan is always good thing.
But the reseachers may be making a different point.
They said…..”that merely thinking about a backup plan caused people to perform worse and try less.” Does that mean that you are thinking about both Plan A and B as you try to implement Plan A?
When I play tennis–my plan A may be a forehand topspin shot. My Plan B might be a drop shot. If I’m think about both shots at the same time–bad things happen.
Implementing Plan A requires a total focus on just Plan A.
Thanks Paul. I feel like there’s a mix of “adapt as you go” and fully focus on plan A in your comment.
Some of this gets back to definition.
BTW… I think the researchers were thinking about making plan B, not thinking about it while executing plan A.
Truly? When job hunting I have plan A B C D and E running consecutively. As soon as one rejection comes in, I am already constructing the next pre thought out plan. No room for disappointment that way, just on to the next one.
That sounds like plan A is learn, adapt, and keep going.