Empty buzzwords

Planning to fail: Why your most expensive mistakes are mental

In Short

While the number of strategic plans produced by Jewish organizations is astoundingly large, the number of organizations recreated based on a plan is shockingly small.

“Process doesn’t produce strategy — it produces plans.”
Gary Hamel

I am a congenial contrarian.

I know, quite a selling point. But at least I got your attention.   

(I also love self-deprecation.)

Reflective leadership requires self-knowledge, and I know my natural instinct is to mentally zag when others mentally zig. I try not to be mean about it (hence the “congenial” part.)

So I suppose it’s not surprising that I’ve begun to wonder why I find certain leadership buzzwords less meaningful the more I hear them. If you ask a typical leader how to make change, they will quote mantras from change management literature: Create a compelling vision. Develop a plan. Get stakeholder buy-in. Any strategic plan includes some version of these action steps.

However, while the number of plans produced by Jewish organizations is astoundingly large, the number of organizations recreated based on a plan is shockingly small. I almost feel bad for leaders who speak of their organization’s strategic plan as if it is a magical document representing their brilliant vision, when, in reality, a plan is just a piece of paper. The more interesting question is why so few of these plans succeed, and why so many leaders are the last people to know that their visionary approach was just an approach. Unlocking this question holds the key to understanding the eventual difference between success and failure.

The gap between our inside view of ourselves and the outside view of reality is a mental mistake, and a costly one. But it is also fixable. And when we look back at organizations that succeeded versus those that did not, we find a mental approach to leadership that is undertaught and undervalued. While you can learn more about this approach on a weekly basis (hint hint), start by remembering three things:  

  1. You Are NOT Above Average (And Neither Am I)

“What are the things you are going to do that will allow you to succeed where others failed?”   

This is my favorite question to ask a leader with an ambitious agenda. Most of the time, I receive incredibly vague answers. “Create a compelling vision” is an action, but didn’t your predecessor have a vision? “Reinvent our programs” sounds nice, but do you think your predecessor started their tenure trying to run worse programs? Success comes from zagging where others zigged, but when forced to specify most leaders throw out empty buzzwords.

Why do you have a problem answering this question? Because you are implicitly assuming that you are the game changer. Barukh HaShem you showed up to save us from ourselves!

Behavioral science spent the past five decades providing ironclad evidence that all of us, including you and me, are statistically most likely to be average, but systematically likely to rate ourselves as above average. And worse, the Dunning-Kruger Effect demonstrates that the most dangerous leader is one with “unconscious incompetence,” so ignorant about their gaps in knowledge that they actually think they are an expert! As Junior Soprano once said, “Some people are so behind in a race that they actually believe they’re leading.”

Want to achieve great things? Great. Start by remembering that the laws of gravity apply to everyone.  Your predecessor was not a buffoon, and you are not a genius. When you focus on showing rather than telling, you make your mark by your actions, not by merely being a different person.

  1. When Your Theory of the Problem is Wrong, Everything Else is Wrong, Too

In the beginning, you had a theory.

A vision is a kind of theory; you would not be in your role unless someone believes in your theory of why things are the way they are, and how things could be different with your leadership. But here’s where things get interesting…

The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) cautions that people tend to underestimate contextual factors and overestimate personality factors when evaluating a situation. This means that in addition to overestimating your abilities, you are more likely to underestimate contextual flaws in an organization, such as poor fundraising or insufficient administrative support, and overestimate personal factors, like staff accountability or workplace culture. In other words, you will look for who went wrong to avoid addressing what went wrong.

The most common (wrong) theory: Blaming everything on the staff.  When an organization succeeds, top leaders and fiduciaries are quick to pat themselves on the back; but if major successes in organizations stem from effective decision-making from the top, then it follows that major failures do, as well. But it is much, much easier for leaders to punch down than look in the mirror.      

So beware and ruthlessly probe your theory of the problem. Because if it is wrong, not only will your agenda fail, but you will leave wreckage in your wake.

  1. Resist Planning as an Avoidance Tactic

When attempting to solve a problem, you will inevitably focus on some things more than others. The problem arises when there is a misalignment between spending your time on the things you want to focus on as opposed to the things the organization needs to focus on. When this happens, your planning mutates into an avoidance tactic. And this tendency also has a name: the attentional bias

People are biased toward the familiar and the friendly. And to paraphrase Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky, while you cannot develop a plan unless you have a vision “from the balcony,” eventually you need to get back down on the dance floor to engage in the grind of making the vision a reality. But when leaders are forced to recognize that no one can fix certain problems except themselves, many will do everything to avoid solving them. In this sense, your plan will not “solve” anything for you; only you can do that.

If you spend years writing a gorgeous strategic plan, devote the next five years to creating new working groups and committees to create plans to implement the plan, and then process those plans until everyone tunes out, you may ultimately realize when it’s too late that you accomplished nothing significant other than wasting a lot of other people’s money.

So that thing you will get to LATER? Do that first.  

It’s likely the thing standing in the way between you and success.

The good news about these mental mistakes is that they are normal and cost almost nothing to fix; you just need to get to work and learn. The bad news is that no one can correct them but you.   

But I have faith in you, and who better than a rabbi to have a little faith?  Good luck.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the founder of Moneyball Judaism, a free weekly newsletter that provides Jewish leaders with easy-to-digest explanations of trends in behavioral economics, social psychology, decision sciences and organizational development. You should totally subscribe to it like our 1,500 weekly readers, including 40 CEOs of major Jewish organizations and one former White House Chief of Staff. Or you can read more of Josh’s writings at www.joshuarabin.com.