Why is the failure rate so high for our plans?

With all the time, energy, and relationship capital that goes into crafting your plans, why do we too often look back at them and view those plans as falling short?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a long time, having worked on more planning initiatives than I can count. 

A possible answer is because we’re constructing our planning processes for environmental conditions that have long ceased to exist. Back in the days when product and program lifecycles were years (sometimes decades) long, management’s focus was on improving the status quo. It fostered more of a command and control, bureaucratic management posture. We were focused on analyzing gaps, increasing effectiveness, and managing money, risk, and performance. We convinced ourselves that we were “managing change.” The most audacious among us were going so far as to say we were “leading change.”

Not anymore.

Product and program lifecycles are now measured in weeks and months. The operating environment shows VUCA characteristics (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). You know this fast-paced swirl all too well, right?

Complexity theorists like Ralph Stacey1 point to two variables that are more important than any previous time as leaders seek to design a planning process that yields the desired organizational behavioral response.

Those key variables are: 1) the degree of uncertainty in your operating environment; and 2) the likelihood of disagreement among key stakeholders in your system.

Take a second to draw on a sheet of paper two intersecting line spectrums, a north/south “y” axis and an east/west “x” axis. Label the x axis the degree of uncertainty and the y axis the likelihood of disagreement. The extremes of each axis should be identified. At the far right of the x axis is high uncertainty, where paths forward are obscured and you’re witnessing high fluidity. The opposite pole on the same axis reflects low uncertainty (or, certainty, but we’re being consistent with the structure of the axis label). At this pole, we observe lots of clarity about the paths forward and little variability.

Similarly, label the y axis the likelihood of disagreement among stakeholders, where we’ll find high disagreement and diversity of views at the top end of the spectrum and low disagreement and close alignment of views at the lower end of the spectrum. 

Now label the key characteristics of each quadrant, reflecting the intersection of the two variables. Your drawing might look like this:


You’ll note that I assigned a letter to each of the four quadrants for ease of reference. 

What do you observe? In only one quadrant (D) is both uncertainty and disagreement low. Said another way, there’s high certainty about the operating environment and high agreement among stakeholders. 

Sound like the world in which you operate? No, mine either. In fact, this intersection of only two key variables reinforces what we’ve all been feeling for a while. Living with some combination of uncertainty and disagreement is the norm, not the exception. Operating complexity is both evidence of, and produced by, high uncertainty and the strong likelihood of disagreement among the constituents impacted by your planning.

We’re seeing such high failure rates in organizational change initiatives because we’re applying ideas designed in lower left quadrant (orderly, predictable, status quo, standardized) for situations in the upper right (VUCA world, requiring continuous agility and improvisation). 

Your capacity to create real transformation will be governed by the tools you employ to frame your planning and organizational adaptation initiatives. Your successful adaptation will need increasingly to:

  • Foster connectivity and promote diversity
  • Foster being present in the moment
  • Lift conditions for innovation and renewal
  • Challenge habits and assumptions
  • Increase the flow of information
  • Reduce power differentials

What tool(s) can do that?

I believe that the 4D cycle of appreciative inquiry is your best bet. 

Affirmative topic.png

What is appreciative inquiry (AI)? Quite literal definitions are pretty powerful.

Ap-pre’ci-ate, verb

  1. valuing; the act of recognizing the best in people or the world around us; affirming past and present strengths, successes, and potentials; to perceive those things that give life (health, vitality, excellence) to living systems
  2. to increase in value, e.g. the economy has appreciated in value.


In-quire’ (kwir), verb

  1. The act of exploration and discovery.
  2. To ask questions; to be open to seeing new potentials and possibilities. 


“At its heart, AI is about the search for the best in people, their organizations, and the strengths-filled, opportunity-rich world around them. AI is not so much a shift in the methods and models of organizational change, but AI is a fundamental shift in the overall perspective taken throughout the entire change process to ‘see’ the wholeness of the human system and to ‘inquire’ into that system’s strengths, possibilities, and successes.2

Characteristic elements of this approach illustrate why there is such high value in employing an AI lens for planning and organizational adaptation initiatives where uncertainty and the likelihood for disagreement are high. 

Characteristic Elements of Appreciative Inquiry (AI)3

  • The whole system participates. Appreciative Inquiry brings together a cross-section of as many internal and external stakeholders as possible.
  • The time together is task-focused. Rather than an educational event or conference, an appreciative inquiry initiative asks participants to roll up their sleeves and accomplish real work, reflected in the central topic of inquiry.
  • Participants think globally together before acting locally. Future scenarios are put into historical and whole-system perspective. This enhances shared understanding, creates a greater commitment to act, and increases the range of potential actions.
  • Participants self-manage their work, using dialogue and designing for the future. Taking shared responsibility for their collective work, participants focus on creating “what’s best and what’s next.”
  • Participants look for common ground. Rather than managing conflict and difference, Appreciative inquiry asks the continuity question: What are those things from our past that we all want to keep and strengthen, even as we move into a new and changing future?
  • Participants commit to action.  Because the whole system is involved, it is easier to make decisions more effectively and rapidly. As they commit to action, everyone takes ownership for the valued future.

This approach has been succeeding for the past three decades in local, regional, national, and global settings in all three sectors: for-profit, nonprofit, and government, from the smallest to the largest organizations and initiatives. 

There is so much good to be unleashed, so much creativity and innovation looking for an outlet, and so many resources looking to ignite imaginations for us to squander these opportunities by using leadership tools that no longer reflect the dynamics of our time.


1I’m drawing on adaptions by Professor Ron Frey at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management of the work of Ralph Stacey, Stacey, R., Complex Responsive Processes in Organisations (2001) Routledge.

2Stavros, Jacqueline, Godwin, Lindsey, & Cooperrider, David. (2015). Appreciative Inquiry: Organization Development and the Strengths Revolution. In Practicing Organization Development: A guide to leading change and transformation (4th Edition), William Rothwell, Roland Sullivan, and Jacqueline Stavros (Eds). Wile)

3Drawn from the World Positive Education Accelerator (2018) summary report, https://drive.google.com/file/d/16rsQuYcKkc_zfJOcWI3UvNtVAyJvyPKp/view