Good Leaders Utilize the “What If” Methodology in Planning

Leaders need to be able to see what is going to happen before it happens. This does not mean that leaders must be clairvoyant or psychic and be able to see into the future. Rather, good leaders understand that the key ingredient in the planning process is conducting a rigorous “what if” exercise. Before taking any action, good leaders will ask the searching question “what if we do this?” There will be an array of responses to that question and each answer must in turn be thought through and played out by repeating the same question, “what if we do this?” If the planning process is to be successful, it must proceed in collaboration with others in the organization. Good leaders know that conducting a collective “what if” inquiry will bring into focus a range of actions that can be taken and the strengths and weaknesses of each. Armed with this information, good leaders will be able to predict with a high degree of probability, the available courses of action that can be taken and the results of each. The end result will be an assurance that “if we take this action, then this reaction will happen.” Consequently, this process will allow leaders through the choices they make to “see” what is going to happen before it happens; to get out in front of issues and establish direction and policy for the organization on a wide range of issues.
The best time to perform this method is before any crisis or situation arises that requires action. Once a crisis has occurred, the “what if” methodology can still be effective but, it will be tied to and impacted by the current crisis such as the performance or conduct of a particular person or failure to follow a procedure. This becomes a complicating factor that will often reduce the range of available actions. For example: A small business of five managers and clerical staff, and fifteen automotive repairers rent a new building and the owner of the building gives this new tenant three parking spaces as part of the contract. The next day their outstanding foreman starts parking in one of these parking spaces without permission. In this scenario this business owner just lost the opportunity to develop a plan for these three parking spaces before anyone started to park in them. Now, the behavior of the foreman will become the threshold issue and the “what ifs” will revolve around the foreman. Good leaders recognize that the “what if” method should have started as soon as the three spaces were included in the deal.

Paul Okum has 40 years’ experience with the Federal Government in the Departments of Transportation, Interior, Army, and Defense in leadership positions, including being a US Army officer. Okum has written “Leadership DNA,” a guide book about identifying, selecting, and developing natural born leaders. For more information about Paul Okum and “Leadership DNA”, visit:

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