leadership lane-assist

I have lost count of the number of strategic planning task forces I have participated in or chaired over my four-plus decade career. I have engaged in planning for postsecondary institutions and many sub-units as well as a variety of non-profit Christian ministry and social service organizations. I have participated as a junior administrator, faculty member, senior executive, CEO, board member, board chair, and both volunteer and paid consultant for organizations ranging in size from less than a dozen to thousands of employees and in financial resources from less than $100 thousand to more than $100 million.

They all have this tendency in common: Their plan includes too many things.

We have been for some months now considering a collection of accumulated leadership insight I am calling, My Leadership Lane-Assist. Over the years, I have contemplated my leadership experiences and collected, cultivated, and curated these insights such that they serve as an instinctive, embedded mechanism that guides me as I exercise my leadership calling in a variety of contexts.

So, here’s a Leadership Lane-Assist that governs my approach to planning and my assessment of a plan’s validity and likelihood of successful implementation:


optionsPlanning is not the accumulation of possibilities; it is the elimination of options.


Although I cannot recall a specific source from which I originally gleaned this axiom (hey, I even Googled it and came up with nothing!), I am pretty sure it did not originate with me. But it sure resonates with me and many people with whom I have shared it over the years. Most of our planning exercises amount to a compilation of our stakeholders’ most cherished aspirations rather than a sparse and specific distillation of our collective focus. Consequently, we end up dissipating our human and financial resources, disappointing ourselves and our stakeholders, and defeating our chances of success.

In my experience, Christian organizations are particularly prone to this error. Christian college and seminary faculties, even more. Our commendable spiritual values of inclusiveness, mutual deference, and shared governance understandably make us reluctant to exclude the proposals and “needs” of some in favor of others. We reject a political culture, a binary “win/lose” approach to the curation of ideas. So, our plans may have core elements but they are laden with crumbs for everyone. And we thus bankrupt our ministries and short-circuit our intentions.

pruningConsider on the other hand how effective gardening works. Pruning — yes cutting off unhealthy and unfruitful branches but also eliminating even some healthy branches — ensures greater flourishing and fruitfulness. Failure to prune not only diminishes the plant’s produce but may also threaten its very life and longevity.

In their 2011 book, Simple Church, authors Tom Rainer and Eric Geiger present their research findings about what thriving churches have in common: they have moved resolutely in the direction of greater simplicity. Rainer and Geiger distill simplicity into four key aspects: clarity, movement, alignment, focus. They urge churches to discern what they are uniquely called, gifted, and situated to do and then deliberately to pare and prioritize their programs to conform to their calling.

My good friend and former colleague, Dr. Roy King, offers a similar analysis. Roy once related to me that, in his experience working with scores of churches in decline or distress, they inevitably had in common that they were at least 50% over-programmed. Weary servants were sapped. Meager resources were dissipated.


You’ve got to choose.

Open-ended possibility thinking, free-wheeling imagination, wishing, and yes — by all means dreaming — are all characteristic of healthy planning processes. Accumulating possibilities is indeed a healthy and essential preliminary step in planning — one that should follow a sober review of present situational and organizational realities. But all of that effort will likely result in grotesque growth and aborted changes if not accompanied by a ruthless exercise of choosing among possibilities. In the end, you do not have a useful plan if you have failed to make difficult decisions, painful choices.

We will pursue “A;” we will not pursue “B,C,D,E.”

This is hard. Ironically, planning-related decision making often does not feel like exercising control, it feels like relinquishing control.

Planning requires deciding — both that to which you will commit resources and effort and that to which you will not commit resources and effort.

strategic planAlthough it is not a hard and fast rule, may I suggest that any plan that features more than three primary objectives is too unfocused and too ambitious? The risk of failure grows exponentially with each additional major planning vector. Consider implementing the following planning discipline: Force yourself and your colleagues to match every new initiative with an initiative you will forgo or an existing activity or program entity you will intentionally curtail or abandon. You just might be surprised at the acceleration you experience when you unencumber yourselves in that way.

Are you and your colleagues frustrated with institutional planning efforts, perhaps even becoming cynical, jaded? Do plans gather dust on a shelf or do their folder tabs fray in the obscurity of a file drawer while the transformation and momentum you seek remains elusive? Enable and attend to My Leadership Lane Assist #16:


Planning is not the accumulation of possibilities; it is the elimination of options.


I have one more prompt to share with you in my next post. Stay tuned!

If you’ve missed any posts from my Leadership Lane-Assist series, you can find them in our 4ThoughtLeaders blog pages.  Or, if you’re just tuning in, you may want to start from the beginning of the series with my Leadership Lane-Assist introductory post.

Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …


  The actual “gospel” of Canadians

John Stackhouse, who has taught theology at Ontario’s Crandall University for decades, bemoans the evidence from his theology students’ exam results that the actual “gospel” most of those students espouse — after they have completed his theology course, mind you — is essentially the moralistic therapeutic deism that American sociologist Christian Smith identified in his national study of Christian youth more than a decade ago. Stackhouse prefers patronage over deism because it more aptly describes his students’ belief that God is not disengaged from His creatures but will respond, albeit apparently whimsically, to their prayers. More than mere faithful transmission of orthodox propositions will be required if our students are ever to embrace and embody the true gospel.