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The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry

In the poem “To A Mouse” (1785), Robert Burns wrote:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley

More familiarly, you might have seen or heard this as:

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

This is a lesson humans, and enterprises in particular, have been learning and re-learning for many years.  In many enterprises, the process of strategic planning includes an annual ritual during which strategic plans for the forthcoming fiscal year or multiple years are discussed, written down, and passed around the organization for use in executing their carefully crafted strategy.  But, then something always happens.  Just as for Robert Burns’ Mousie as well as Lennie and George in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937), enterprise plans don’t usually work out as planned.  Sometimes, things work out better than planned (exceeding all expectations), and other times things end up much worse than planned (like the recent experience most of us are recovering from).  Often, the reasons we succeed has little or nothing to do with our plans.

In many ways, this is good for us, humbling us and our organizations so that we must regularly confront the realization that we are not omniscient nor omnipotent, no matter how much brain power and technology is available. Unfortunately, sometimes we seem to forget this fact of life.  When success continues on and on, we lose sight and insight.  Henry Mintzberg, an exceptional management thinker, breaks strategy into two categories: deliberate and emergent.  I like this distinction.  The annual strategic planning process is probably the major source of the deliberate strategy that enterprises attempt to execute on.  The emergent strategy, though, arises during the interaction between an organization and its environment.  Emergent strategy is the strategy that occurs as a result of unanticipated opportunities and threats, or when our deliberate strategy doesn’t materialize as anticipated.  The deliberate strategy planned by enterprises is important, but enterprises need to be prepared to change course as a result of changes in the environment.  And, one of the best ways to know that things aren’t going as planned is to monitor and measure key performance indicators that will help your enterprise know when it is on track in the right direction, and when you need to change course.

In subsequent blog postings, I plan on discussing ways that you can use enterprise performance management software to better anticipate the future and to gain insight into why things turned out different than planned. I hope to help you better understand how to use enterprise performance management techniques and SAP BusinessObjects products to dynamically adjust your strategy, and to communicate and collaborate more effectively.


While researching the origin of “best laid plans” quote, I found that the previous line in the poem is also interesting:

“In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes…”

I don’t think that most of us believe that foresight is vain, but we definitely need to learn not to be overconfident in our predictions about what the future will bring.

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  • A colleague often referred to strategic planning as Educated Guessing. When I look at customer requirements in BI-IP I sometimes wonder if the word Educated should be replaced by a better term.