Failure to Plan is Planning to Fail

Strategic planning has been on my mind a lot in the past few weeks.

I’ve been finding strategic planning in the usual places – the Laurel Historical Society is in the middle of a multi-year strategic planning effort, for example, and anyone familiar with museums, academia, and/or the nonprofit world should always have some level of awareness about strategic plans – and in unusual places as well.

The concept of strategic planning, I’ve realized, crops up quite frequently during walking seminars I lead along the National Mall from time to time. Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s design for Washington is the launching point for an historical overview of the Mall, juxtaposed in the ensuing three hours with its reinterpretation in the 1902 McMillan Plan and the still-ongoing 21st century re-reinterpretation (have no fear, Andrew Jackson Downing’s 1851 Mall redesign also makes a few appearances).

For me, the most striking aspects of both the L’Enfant and McMillan plans aren’t their immediate transformations of the Mall, but the long-term vision they also encouraged. When L’Enfant was designing the capital city, it had to have been tempting to name all of the circles and squares created through the implementation of his grid street system. Instead, he left them empty, preferring to allow future Americans to celebrate their own heroes. Similarly, when the McMillan Plan imagined the Mall and the heart of D.C. as a “monumental core” they did so knowing that it would be up to future residents, those not even born yet, to determine the location, subject, and appearance of those monuments, memorials, and museums.

What always strikes me isn’t the idea of explicitly accounting for the future in strategic planning, since I was the one who designed the walking seminar after all, but rather the responses of my clients. Their appreciation, amazement, even shock at the notion of designing with the future in mind speaks volumes to the popularization of immediacy and the true difficulty in taking the long view. Even when a museum or university undertakes a strategic planning process, oftentimes it’s for 5 or 10 years. That L’Enfant and the McMillan Commission were looking 50 years, 100 years, indefinitely into the future speaks to the adventurous vision and the value of their contribution to the physical and psychological landscape of the U.S.

The notion of strategic planning also comes up in a favorite pastime of mine, comic books. There’s the short-term planning – a single writer thinking about the next few story arcs of the book she writes – and long-term planning, on the scale of a grouping of books or even the entirety of a publisher’s line.

At the moment the big two of comic book publishing, Marvel and DC, are both in the middle of a company-wide reboot, Secret Wars in the case of the former and Convergence for the latter. While the need for either company to reboot their line is a topic for another day (hint: it’s unnecessary) there is a distinct difference in the levels of planning put into each, or at least the perception thereof. Secret Wars was spearheaded by writer Jonathan Hickman and his editing team as the culmination of a storyline that was introduced in Avengers (vol. 5) #1 and New Avengers (vol. 3) #1 back in December 2012/January 2013, and is rebooting decades of continuity (although the Marvel NOW! initiative in 2011/12 resulted in renumbering of books and new team compositions, it didn’t affect continuity). Meanwhile Convergence is rebooting a continuity that had just been rebooted in 2011 as the “New 52,” in part in response to Marvel’s major changes, to lagging sales for New 52 books, and also because they needed a respite from ongoing monthly book publishing for a few months while moving their offices from New York City to Los Angeles.

Even before the first books from Secret Wars and Convergence were released, and especially now that the first issues have hit the newsstands, there’s a distinct difference in public responses to the two crossovers. Criticism of Convergence is somewhat negative and at the very least cynical, while that of Secret Wars is a fair bit more open-minded. Critics aren’t quite sure what to make of the Marvel story, but knowing that it was meticulously planned and executed strategically, there’s more willingness to trust the creative staff and let things play out.

That trust comes not just from company goodwill, but from the public acknowledgement by Marvel of their strategic plan, tying it to future company goals and demonstrating to the public the connections between the current storylines and actions in the comics over the past few years. Obviously the nature of a publisher’s strategic plan is different than a cultural institution – the publisher only assures us that a plan exists, while a public entity makes (or at least should make) the entirety of its strategic plan available for public consumption.

And at the end of the day, “strategic planning” is an apt way of describing the way we plan our own lives – our tomorrow, our next week, five years down the road, fifty years down the road. Things don’t always go according to plan, but planning provides a framework for future actions, and serves as an exercise to develop a better sense of what’s meaningful and how best to achieve it, both the end goal and the process of getting there.

Note: Due to a technical hiccup, a draft version of this post appeared yesterday evening. All fixed now!

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