The Best-Laid Grass

While spending two days discussing high beam planning with the officer team, we had a second-floor overview of an intriguing process. In the center of the grass courtyard below us, workers began removing sod from a carefully measured circle about 50 feet in diameter. We learned from one of the workers that they were raising the level in the center of the courtyard so it would drain when it rained.

This process involved cutting the sod with a sod-cutter and rolling it up before carrying it to the perimeter of the circle, as if to prepare for re-installation. Then wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of dirt was dumped in the middle and carefully raked out. It was then that we noticed there was no intention of reinstalling the old sod. It was picked up again and carried to a truck while new sod was brought out and rolled onto the newly prepared ground.

And then, the real fun began. Over an entire day they installed, then removed, then reinstalled the sod several times, trying various systems to achieve the level and grade they apparently had in mind. Their determination and perseverance were admirable, but I couldn’t help but wonder if they might have started with a better plan.

Written by Robert Burns in 1785, “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough” is the Scots-language poem where we get the phrase, “The best-laid plans of mice and men.”

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I cannot see,
I guess an’ fear!

The poet laments that the mouse is better off because her fears are limited to the present, while his include both the past and the unknown future. This is truly the plight of not only humankind, but the communities and organizations we create.

When leaders engage in long-range planning, they are attempting to see into the future and predict the trends and changes that will impact their organizations. Then plans are laid to take advantage of the opportunities and minimize the risks. Sounds wonderful. Only there is a serious flaw. We can’t see into the future. We can only guess, like the poet. However, it is here where true leadership veers away from this cautionary tale.

While the future is unknown and we are guessing to some great extent, we do not need to be afraid.

One reason we fear the future is we have a biased view of the past. Hindsight bias is when we get caught up thinking that we had better control of past events. We tend to remember and romanticize our successes and over attribute them to our prowess and foresight. At the same time, we minimize our failures and blame them on extenuating circumstances. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but it holds up pretty well.

Maintaining a more accurate history can help us realize that our present situations are often no more unknown than our past. Therefore, success is equally likely and failure no more fatal than before. Personally, I find keeping a journal helps me remember how I felt in past circumstances and how things resolved. Communities can keep similar “records” of processes used to make plans and then review those plans (and associated “predictions”) against reality.

While we cannot predict the future accurately, we can look for and identify trends and then create a plan that aligns with a vision for the future. One of the primary roles of leadership is to communicate a clear vision to everyone in the organization. Having a vision that is inspiring and strategically sound creates the motivation to approach the future uncertainty with positive anticipation.

We may not know what will happen tomorrow. We do know what we want to create. We may have to take the sod up and put it back down a couple times, but if we persevere and keep the final goal, or vision, in mind, we will get the job done. The grass looked nice when they were done, and I’m sure it will drain properly. Remembering best-laid plans may not work but are much better than no plans, combined with a willingness to back up and try a different approach is how we will conquer the future, and it is The Kimray Way.