Planning and the Epic Fail

light-bulbGreat ideas are easy.

I spent much of my career in PR, and though job titles varied I was usually cast in the role of creative director, or more informally, the ‘idea guy’. I was the oddball who spent most of the day on a park bench, or a bus, or wandering the streets looking for inspiration. Calling this ‘work’ would be an exaggeration, and more than a few people thought I was unhinged, but it paid the light bill. Eventually I’d pop into the office and present The Idea, first to colleagues, then to the client.

Along the way, I learned an important truth: The world is full of great ideas. What’s important is that they have the desired impact. Ideas themselves are simple, beautiful, and uncomplicated things. They only get messy when we build plans around them, as we must.  

If an idea is a lovely snowflake, a plan is a blizzard: Messy, expensive, chaotic, and all the while capable of beauty. There’s magic in the scene of a city street blanketed by new-fallen snow – at least until you realize that peaceful little hill is actually your car.

Anyone can make a funny video of kids falling off skateboards. Just Google “epic skateboard fail” and you’ll have proof. Showing teens tumbling off skateboards is the idea – it grabs our attention. The plan ties the idea to the client’s cause, like selling donuts or detergent or plastic surgery.

Great planning brings great ideas to life, and in the immortal words of the A-Team’s John ‘Hannibal’ Smith, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Plans aren’t merely mechanical creations, with easy-to-follow steps guaranteed to lead to success. Life is tougher than assembling a flat-pack coffee table. Plans necessarily involve people, which makes them at the same time both wonderful and unpredictable. People give a plan warmth, but they are also inconsistent. They are prone to misunderstanding, they react badly to pressure, and when they aren’t fully sold on your plan, they can be cunning saboteurs.

That Swedish flat-pack coffee table doesn’t need to be committed to your success. It doesn’t need buy-in. There’s no requirement that it get excited about its transition from tree to lumber to furniture. People, though, need to be on board. When employees do something they want to do, it can be magical. When they are given an extra, uncompensated task to add to an already full workload, the desired human touch can be a kick in the pants.   When we compel them to breathe life into our fabulous ideas, they will err in ways that would give Stephen King nightmares. Each failure to implement the plan moves us further from fulfilling our mission, and that makes training essential to gaining that buy-in.

On a recent trip to the U.S., I stayed with a major business-class hotel chain. On check-in, I engaged in a brief, friendly chat with the front desk agent, who was curious about my life in Ukraine given the political situation. The next morning, I found a notecard under my door. “Dear Mr. Lewis,” the handwritten message read. “I enjoyed our conversation about Russia and I hope you have a good time in Hawaii. Mauricio”.

The idea was brilliant: Give guests a memorable personal touch. The plan failed, however: My home is in Ukraine, which is in a shooting war with Russia, and I had not planned to go anywhere near Hawaii. In this case, inattention to detail derailed the hotel chain’s otherwise brilliant plan.

In the end, it really isn’t the thought that counts at all. It’s all about the execution. Every plan that requires employee participation requires thorough training to ensure great execution and reinforcement to keep people focused and inspired. Moreover, managers need to demonstrate how helping to execute the plan will benefit staff. Offer incentives that make success more fun than sabotage.

After all, watching a kid fall off a skateboard can be funny, but seeing her execute a flawless 540-degree McTwist can be a thing of beauty. Watching her perform this feat while munching your client’s double-jelly donut? That’s planning magic.


Scott H. Lewis is managing director for Ukraine and the CIS for Signature Europe. A former journalist and public relations counselor, he has provided crisis, public speaking and presentation training to senior executives across Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. He is the author of “60 Seconds to ‘Wow!’,” a book on presentation skills. An American, he has lived in Kyiv, Ukraine for more than a decade.

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