Hope for the best and plan for the worst… ?

18th January 2011
Which gets the best results? Hope for the best and plan for the worst? Or is it the other way round?

I like hoping for the best and planning for the worst. And I can also see the merit in pitching my hopes and expectations on the low side and planning to beat them.

I guess if this was Harry Hill’s TV Burp then the two approaches would have a fight. Very postmodern, and lots of fun, but not terribly helpful.

The point is that in motivational terms it’s good to aim high. “Aim for the stars and you’ll reach the moon” and all that. But on the other hand if you aim high and don’t make it you could damage or even break the business.

On the other hand, from a planning perspective, particularly in times of recession, it’s good to make your financial planning as cautious as possible in order to eke out the scarce resource of cash. The obvious problem with this approach is that you can be can starved when it comes to new investments, and blinkered to new opportunities. There’s often a distinct lack of the entrepreneurial spirit once you batten down the hatches.

In the meantime there’s also a lot to be said, particularly in young and growing businesses, for setting a solid, safe growth goal and then beating it comfortably. What you’ll never know, though, it what you could have achieved if you’d really pushed the boat out.

This approach often means that the team gets a tremendous sense of achievement and an expectation of bigger brighter and better things next time around. This can easily become a “winning mindset” which can pay huge dividends when the team face marginal situations and need a bit of luck. However, it can also feed overconfidence and complacency; a sense that victory is deserved and therefore doesn’t need to be worked for. This can be very bad for business.

So to sum up, it’s all potentially good (and bad) for business, and we still don’t have a clue which works better.

But hang on a moment. Maybe we’re overcomplicating this. Perhaps we’re trying to answer the wrong question.

Surely the point here is not whether strategy (the plan) beats motivation (the hope), but how they work best together.

We all know that for goals to be most effective they need to be SMART. Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. There is also evidence to support the view that the most powerful motivator for people at work is usually autonomy. This would lead us to believe that the best approach is to set the target and “leave them to it”.

Well, not entirely. If you have a skilled, experienced, highly self-motivated team then the chances are they’re doing one better than this already; setting their own targets and working with each other to beat them.

The problem with this approach comes when you have a mixed ability group, or if they are all novices, for example, running their first business. In those cases a certain amount of direction, hands on motivation, coaching and education are required, because these kinds of teams can’t be expected to get it 100% right first time. They need to learn from their mistakes to gain the experience and expertise which comes with mastery.

And that bounces us back to goal setting. A less experienced team needs sub goals – milestones to assess their performance en route – and some “soft” goals so that they get the right balance between task and people focus.

Of course, what’s being really directed here is their awareness;
  • of environment in the case of sub goals and
  • other team members, in the case of soft goals.

So to return to the original question, the key determinant is not the primacy of strategy versus motivation, or vice versa, or even the state of the economic cycle. It’s about your people, and the level and focus of their awareness. And, if you’re a business leader, entrepreneur or serial investor, that invariably means it’s also about you: your direction, your focus, your awareness and above all your business acumen.


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