Planning is Pointless without Implementation

by Edward Henkler on July 9, 2013

Without implementation, the best plans in the world are pointless.  The Philadelphia School System has experienced increasingly difficult funding challenges in recent years.  There are many causes and it is interesting that one of the area Charter School systems just invested $29MM to acquire an iconic property, so it is apparent that quality education can be provided in a sustainably profitable manner.  I’ll avoid those topics for now as I want to focus on a different problem.  That is the failure to devote sufficient attention and resources to implementation efforts.

The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported that state and local officials have collaborated on a significant funding package, which may enable the school district to avoid layoffs.  It’s a very creative bipartisan effort, involving diverse stakeholders.  At face value, the newspaper article was inspiring, especially in light of my previous post about congressional partisanship.  Unfortunately, the article made no reference to implementation, which makes me wonder who will track progress and measure outcomes.  What will prevent us from having the same problems next year or in a few years?

This gap is not unique to the school district or government activities.  It seems to arise in almost every venue.  Months and sometimes years are invested in planning major change or developing strategic plans, while implementation often seems an afterthought.  Why don’t we invest at least as much effort into ensuring a successful implementation?

Several possible causes come to mind.  The simplest explanation is that we assume that implementation will be straightforward and no further attention is required.  Even in the unlikely case that all of the right stakeholders are involved throughout the planning cycle, it is naïve to think that a robust project execution plan isn’t required.  A second explanation may be that implementation is too complex when ongoing activities must also be managed.  As with any complex task, it is important to attack the challenge in smaller increments, methodically building out the full project plan, while never losing sight of the final vision or goal.

But I wonder if the greatest challenge is fear of failure.  Planning isn’t especially risky but shortcomings will be exposed during the implementation phase.  It is more difficult to hold someone accountable when they can blame a faulty implementation on lack of execution plans.

The best practice is to develop a robust project execution plan, monitor it throughout implementation then conduct two lessons learned sessions.  The first session can occur shortly after project execution and a second one should be conducted 12-18 months later to determine if the project goals were truly met.

What does your company do?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Joe Voicheck July 10, 2013 at 9:59 pm

Hi Ed,

Good article. My personal experience has been that implementation results and lessons learned (at interim points in the implementation effort) generally result in to a revision to the implementation plan (if things are not working). Therefore, there is an iterative approach to getting to completion that relies on implementation results and subsequent corrections, and that this may occur several times in the project.

Hope all is well!


Edward Henkler July 10, 2013 at 11:56 pm

Thanks, Joe. The iterations can be good early but very costly later on. An even bigger concern is an ineffective implementation which wastes the energy and resources expended developing the plan.


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