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"Everybody's got a plan until you get punched in the nose"

By David Deegan


Planning is hugely important, and so many courses teach people how to plan for crucial conversations. We have worked in partnership with Atos over the past 4 years, delivering a well-respected Programme Manager Masterclass, and we created a short video about the Masterclass. In it, you will hear one of the participants, Lee, say “Mohammed Ali said ‘Everybody’s got a plan until you get punched on the nose”.

I have worked with many people who plan their conversations in detail, but the mistake that they make is to plan what they will do on the basis of the likely responses they will receive. They decide upon their first question and make assumptions about how the other person will respond. They then base their next question/conversation-strategy on the basis of that assumed response. And from that, they assume the person’s next response and so on, until they end up with a beautifully-crafted conversation which is a total work of fiction. They make create more than one assumed response for each of their questions, and therefore create several parallel potential conversations based upon “If…then…” processes, which is very similar to the adventure-game books and video-games made popular in the 80’s, recently brought vividly to life in the Netflix Black Mirror film “Bandersnatch”.

But those were games, and this is real life. Eric Berne demonstrated that in real life human beings have a tendency to play relational games with each other, but just as in “Bandersnatch” they rarely end well.

In conversations we can plan our objectives, our approaches, reflect upon our motives. We can prepare our facts. We can make assumptions about what might happen, but we have to be disciplined with ourselves and recognise that they are just that – assumptions. If we go into a conversation with a detailed plan based upon “certainties” of how exactly someone will respond, then we are likely to be surprised when they metaphorically punch us on the nose.

And when that happens, we are very unlikely to truly listen to what the other person is saying, and thereby not respond in a way that helps either the conversation or the relationship.

At Cranfield we have created a process called Grounded Experiential Learning (GEL). My colleagues Geraint and Sergio explain in the video, how we have created a business simulation that contains scenarios and conversations which participants have to deal with in short roleplay situations that move participants away from the comfort of relying on their technical Project/Programme Manager skills and into the less comfortable field of building relationships.

In the Atos GEL story there are three stages. As you can see in the video, in the second stage we explore “Effective programme and stakeholder management”. And these are two aspects where the ability to be flexible in your conversation skills is absolutely critical. We help participants to prepare for those conversations, to plan their objectives, approaches and intentions. But as Lee puts it, it is only by “getting your hands dirty” and being directly involved in the conversations, and receiving feedback from Cranfield faculty and fellow participants, that real learning takes place.

The business simulation within the GEL process is cited by many of the Atos participants as being the most impactful and useful part of the programme. It gives participants the opportunity to put themselves in positions where they are likely to be “punched in the nose”, but with not one drop of blood ever being spilt.

If you would like to know more about the approach we take to learning, have a look at the video below:

If you would like more information about Grounded Experiential Learning or Executive Development, contact us.


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