Proper Prior Planning Prevents Perplexing Problems

Mr. McMahon was my Jr. High Algebra teacher and above his blackboard he had the phrase “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Perplexing Problems” in large block letters. It was a favorite expression of his. Often when we would come to him with a dilemma he would reply with that phrase.

“Mr. McMahon, I left my homework at home…” His reply of, “Proper prior planning prevents perplexing problems,” let us know that bringing in our homework was our responsibility — he didn’t feel the need to adjust his expectations to accommodate our performance (or lack of performance).

Proper Prior Planning Prevents Perplexing Problems

We had one classmate who frequently made it to class without a writing instrument of any kind. He would ask Mr. McMahon to let him borrow a pencil. After making him recite the 6 P’s (as we started calling it) Mr. McMahon would loan the lad a pencil but take a shoe as collateral (assuming that he wouldn’t wander off to his next class without his shoe). Mr. McMahon wanted him to be able to do his work, but if he was going to be irresponsible, it was going to cost him something.

As my children have reached adolescence, I’ve dusted off this phrase for my own use. “Dad, I’m supposed to bring 6 egg cartons to school today.” On my own, I admit I wouldn’t know what to do with such dilemmas, usually presented to me 20 minutes before leaving the house for school, or, sometimes in the school parking lot. But Mr. McMahon’s mantra has given me (and my kids) all the clarity I need. Just because you failed to plan for this need, does not make it now my problem to fix for you.

Of course, this mantra has started to find its way into my office as well. Instead of using Miranda Priestly’s iconic phrase, The details of your incompetence do not interest me… (which employees tend to bristle at) I’ve decided to try using “Proper prior planning prevents perplexing problems” instead. It seems more humane. Instead of being instantly offended, they are just mildly annoyed — and it still puts the responsibility squarely where it belongs, on the employee.

But there’s more to it than that. This phrase is not merely a shield which I use to thwart a hundred interruptions, potential distractions, or accidental to-dos to my day. It is an important reminder as well. If I’m managing MY time, and equipping my employees to do their jobs, and communicating my expectations – this pithy phrase reminds us all of the responsibility of responsibility.

If I have NOT communicated clear directives, and given my employees the tools to accomplish their tasks, and made sure they understand the timeline, then this phrase will just be a hammer to hit them over the head with. It will be a strange burden, a humiliation that could wear on them over time. My goal is not to burden my employees (or my children for that matter) with things that are too heavy for them. My goal is to let them carry their own weight, and, with any luck, develop a capacity for more.

perplexing problemsMy own perplexing problem could very well become a bunch of employees who are incapable of moving from step 1 to step 2 without me. I don’t want that. I also don’t want an entire team of mavericks, interpreting on their own words like timelines, budgets, and “quality”. I need to properly plan for delegating tasks — with solid recruitment and hiring practices, consistent on-boarding for new employees, appropriate training and clear communication.

And then, in that environment, if an employee has a mis-step, falters, or just slacks off and comes to me, “Proper prior planning prevents perplexing problems” is a gift to them. They get a chance to own their work, fix their mistake, troubleshoot or brainstorm. And all of that is a gift.

But wait, there’s more; the bonus for me is two-fold. For one, I’m training my employees to be prepared and to problem solve without me. A great deal for me, either way you look at it. Secondly, when I give the responsibility back to my employee, I can watch what happens; I get information. This information could be used to open up a conversation, like, “How do you think you handled…? What might you do differently next time?” There is a tremendous opportunity for learning in our mistakes; and I want to solidify and affirm any piece of that for my employee. If my employee happens to demonstrate a stroke of brilliance even as he is cleaning up his mess, I can acknowledge that too!

Conversations like these can be significant relationship builders in a boss/employee relationship. Those opportunities come so easily when our employees truly own their work, and take responsibility — including paying a price or receiving a reward — for how they do it. You can use my mantra (Mr. McMahon’s, actually) or create your own to avoid the temptation to jump in and rescue, micromanage, pitch a fit, or otherwise take responsibility from your employees that actually belongs to them. Oh, and make sure you practice what you preach.

Try it, and be sure and let me know how it goes!

Photo credit: villanovalawlibrary


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