The X-Gap: The Space Between The Plan and its Execution
Regardless of where you operate – the boardroom, the showroom, the storeroom, or the war room – plans have to be adapted because the reality of a situation changes. If you know how reality will change, you’re smarter and perhaps more divine than most and your plan will reflect that. (In fact, many changes you will have foreseen, and included in the contingencies of your flexible plan.) But if you’re human like us, then you’re going to see a gap between where you WANT to be and where you ARE, this is an X-Gap
The X-Gap: What Happens When Reality Changes?
Pilots’ have a mantra: ‘Brief the plan, fly the brief.’ The brief is the mission; the mission is the brief. Pilots want to feel that their mission has run like a well-scripted, well-rehearsed play: with great timing from every actor, stagehand, and musician; no missed lines; quick recovery from any left-field glitches; each participant having irresistible energy for getting the job done and done well. If at the end of a mission a pilot can say ‘It went according to plan, it’s a happy day. It’s also a rare one, for plans rarely survive contact with reality. The reasons are infinite, but logically, it’s because: the plan was not so good in the first place; someone didn’t know the plan; someone hasn’t followed the plan, or reality has dramatically changed. The beauty of a deep-performance framework such as Flex enables you to plan–brief–execute–debrief to address the first three of these risks in turn. But what about the inevitability of change? How do we keep our plan wedded to reality?
Flex accepts that as reality changes, the plan changes. Is that a bad thing? If a sinkhole opens up in the road in front of you, do you drive on regardless? In business, we often do just that, purely because of the inertia we experience as an organisation. The greater the inertia, the more complex it is to remain agile and adapt in the face of change. Let’s go back to the philosophy behind Flex. It’s aiming for flawless execution, not flawless planning. You don’t have to obsess about the plan being perfect, because it’s the execution that matters. However fast or good your planning, a plan is accurate only for the minute it’s made. It will keep changing until captured in the moment of time that is the brief, and then it will continue to change.
So, how do we keep our plan to reality? Every plan should include team check-in points, and an execution rhythm, take a look at the Harvard Business Review article on regular X-Gap reviews to analyze the gap between the plan and its execution. Each X-Gap (short for ‘execution gaps’) is a decision point for the mission: continue, adjust, or abort? Green light, yellow, or red? If reality changes between X-Gaps, your plan will have to change too.
Why have X-Gap meetings?
Keeping on top of what’s happening is the driving reason for our X-Gap meetings, but not the only one. People forget things, they make mistakes and sometimes they just don't get the things done that you need them to do. There, we said it. It’s out there. People don’t always do what they plan to do. (Truth is hard.) People are more likely to do things when they’ve committed to doing so to someone else. People don’t like facing people when they haven’t met that commitment.
Do you get the picture? There is simply no better way to hold people to their part of the plan. As well as keeping things on track, X-Gap meetings hold people accountable. The plan is who does what and when, and nobody can hide if something’s not done. Whether it’s an honest oversight or a shirked responsibility, the plan will have to change. You’ll be able to head off small problems before they snowball and become big ones. You’ll also know there’s an internal threat that might have to be managed in future plans. Working through those issues builds teamwork and mutual respect.
X-Gap meetings also underscore the leader’s intent and desire for the mission. Just as the brief is the moment for a leader to stamp a personality on the mission, an X-Gap is a time to reset that personality. Every emphasis a leader makes and the mood they create in an X-Gap helps build the team’s culture. The leader is restating their responsibility for the plan and its delivery, and it is a chance for the whole team to realign with the culture.
Realign With The Plan
I found plenty of opportunities to reset the plan and take responsibility for it on the journey, with my company Mode, as we built a seventeen-story hotel using innovative modular construction. The idea and plan seemed sound—as sound as something that’s never been done before could be—but it turned out to have a few gaps. Prime among them was the building material. The concept originated in Papua New Guinea, to control building costs in a place with devastating material and labour cost inflation. Mode used steel boxes, fabricated offshore or in a PNG factory, which could be placed like LEGO blocks to build up the structure. The problem came in transferring the technology to Australia, a country where the building codes and fire standards were based on concrete construction. Yet, the architect, structural engineers, and fabricators at a regular X-Gap could quickly set a plan to find a solution.
The ultimate decision? Mode elected to abandon years of research and engaged an Australian builder of smaller prefabricated buildings, and together they designed and built their hotel. It was a tough decision, leaving behind all that technology and investment capital on the shelf. However, we still achieved our mission objective: owning and building a great hotel for less cost than traditional building techniques.
Fighter pilot missions are briefed and flown on the same day. That’s their execution rhythm, and they stick to that rhythm for as long as their strategy demands. Business missions take longer. If they’re longer than a week, don’t wait for reality to change to call an X-Gap meeting. Make it a regular event and create your execution rhythm. Neglecting to take regular opportunities to readjust your plan and come back into alignment with the culture and responsibilities, may be the devastating cause of the mission's failure – and one that could have easily been avoided.
The Reality of Reality: It Changes
The reality of reality is that it changes. Things come up, people have flaws, and plans have gaps. But we should not be waiting for reality to change before we readdress the plan and our goals. As fighter pilots know, you must be thinking five minutes in the future to predict what will happen when reality changes, and be adjusting what you're doing in the now to accommodate for the change that will be taking place. X-Gaps are avoidable, but it will take a leader with initiative, and a team with persistence and drive. Do you have what it takes to be closing your X-Gaps?
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