Business Columns & Blogs

The myth and curse of detailed planning

Richard Rierson
Richard Rierson Courtesy photo

The challenge of execution is not a new problem.

In fact, it is probably one of the most documented and enduring problems that organizations face.

For decades, leaders and managers have lamented that one of their most frustrating issues is the inability to successfully execute their most important initiatives.

When organizations don’t reach their goals, they usually attribute the failure to a lack of detailed planning. The reality, however, is that detail is not the same as clarity.

As leaders we often get “suckered” into believing that by creating detailed and granular plans our vision will be clearly communicated and plans will be flawlessly executed.

We erroneously believe that to get the results we want, we must exert more detail and control, believing that this is the only answer for meeting our objectives.

What we miss, however, is that by specifying too much detail we actually shake confidence and create more uncertainty. The more detailed the instructions or plan, the less likely it will fit into a real situation.

And when things don’t go as anticipated – which they most assuredly will – our perfect plan becomes useless, and we therefore introduce more friction.

And this begins the vicious cycle: When our plan falls apart we feel compelled to exert even more control, more planning and more detail. We begin taking charge of things at lower levels.

We begin taking over tasks that other people are supposed to be doing, more or less dispensing them of their efforts. In return we multiply our own tasks to the point where we can no longer carry them out.

To reverse this trend it is critical that we retain a clear picture of what it is we want to accomplish; we should take a step back, increase our situational awareness and shift our focus on “communicating intent.” We should be less concerned about how a particular thing is done.

Focusing on intent is the pathway to obtaining and maintaining a strategic mindset, a mindset that isn’t focused on developing a strategic detailed plan but instead is focused on developing a strategic intent.

Developing and communicating intent allows an organization to thrive inside a chaotic environment. We think our detailed plans are going to prevent fires, when in reality they actually become the fuel source for friction, stagnation and mediocrity.

The higher up the leadership chain we are, the more general our instructions should be.

Senior leadership should be completely focused on “what” we want to accomplish and “why,” leaving the “how” to the lower levels.

By communicating what we want to achieve and why, we begin to introduce accountability into the mix through delegation and ownership of projects.

Instead of focusing on creating detailed plans, leaders should focus on creating clarity and alignment. The more alignment we create, the more autonomy we can grant.

The end result is an organization that isn’t dependent upon being led by leadership experts; instead we begin to create a flexible and adaptive organization that is rewarded for asking for forgiveness instead of permission.

Richard Rierson, CEO of Verum Communications, is an executive leadership coach, trainer and speaker. He also is the host of “Dose of Leadership,” a podcast and radio show. Contact him at 316-218-7747 or

Interested in writing for “Business Perspectives”? Contact Tom Shine at or 316-268-6268.