I am a planner by nature, so I often council clients to ‘go slow to go fast’. But why is it so critical to take time to plan, to accurately diagnose a problem before leaping into action? This morning, my friend over at Bar Marco in Pittsburgh, co-owner Bobby Fry, wrote in a “Morning Meeting” email he sends to friends and colleagues about the important of taking the time to plan as he negotiates the trials and tribulations of opening a business. His email was a bit of an inspiration for this post….

Coincidentally, I also happen to be reading a book entitled “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership” co-authored by Alexander Grashow, a friend from college who is now head of Cambridge Leadership Associates. In it he describes the pressure that leaders feel to “Do something!” We have all felt it and seen it…communities so tired of planning they simply want to “Do something!”  But what happens if you don’t take the time to think about your priorities? To actually step back and take a moment to DIAGNOSE a problem? Can you imagine if doctors treated patients before taking time to accurately diagnose the sickness? Would you trust a doctor who said “that lump is probably cancer, we don’t need any tests or anything, let’s just try chemo and see how it goes” Perhaps a morbid comparison, but an important one none the less.

As a consultant whose job it is to diagnose sick commercial districts, I often have clients who wonder why we can’t just leap to action. In fact, one client I’m working with now (who shall remain nameless!) wants to leap ahead and bring in architects and transportation consultants to prepare a streetscape plan. This without having any discussions with the key downtown stakeholders and players, including local merchants, whose input is critical to ensuring this is the right direction for the downtown. Perhaps a streetscape plan IS a good idea, but the question needs to be asked, how does it fit into the bigger picture of the district vision? How might streetscape improvements address the underlying economic conditions that are making it difficult for businesses to survive and thrive? In fact, leaping ahead to streetscape improvements might be the nail in the coffin for businesses struggling to keep their doors open. Can you imagine what a street closure or sidewalk construction would do to struggling downtown businesses? The answer to that question is as horrible as a cancer diagnosis….the loss of a business owner’s life savings, the loss of local jobs, the loss of businesses downtown….

Yet, I often find that my job is to council the client to resist the tendency to take action without first understanding the problem. I understand that sometimes it can be frustrating to wait – but the alternative can be a series of false starts that results in the loss of community interest and energy. Being able to gather all of the facts, conduct focus groups, interviews, surveys, market studies…all of that boring PLANNING…is so critical to making the RIGHT decisions that keep people from wasting vital energy and resources. At the end of the day, it’s not planning that slows things down, it’s the LACK of planning that derails efforts to move forward. People take action, see failed results, and then lack the energy to take action again. It’s a perenial problem improperly attributed to the failure to planning.