Giving Action Planning a new edge 

By Lawrence Philbrook

Action planning is one of the five required methods in the global ToP Certification program. In Taiwan, we have been teaching this to those going for certification but have now decided it’s more helpful to offer as a public course. 

We have updated and refined the training into a one-day Transformational Action Planning program. 

ICA’s Participatory Strategic Planning process (PSP or Top SP) includes a key step known as Contradictions.  This begins with recognizing problems, blocks and issues; clustering them by root cause; and then naming each root cause so that when released, transformative energy is available for the desired change.  Identifying these systemic addictions (underlying contradictions) and dealing with them can release the whole system to transformative change.  The contradictions show what has to be cleared away before transformational change is possible.  Contradictions are continually named and renamed as reality shifts, making the PSP a piece of the transformative groundwork for an organisation’s transformational process.  Action Planning is often used to follow-up a PSP as a refocusing process but it can also be an independent program. 

So, what is the edge of our Action Planning? Let’s look at the origins.  Early on, we integrated Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” with our learnings in community development implementation to create a process called “The Maneuver Method”.  Unlike the PSP, this was a result-focused process, generally for short-term programs or projects, “always keeping the victory in mind.”  This focused not only on the actions needed but also on the story that communicated how these actions were intended to transform the situation; and that would build up energy toward success.

 In its simplest form, the Maneuver Method has four steps

  • Naming the victory – Clear measurement of success within three to 12 months
  • Clarifying the situation – Asking the group to describe where it is standing in regards to the internal and external situations, the positive and negative aspects, and then in the context of the victory, citing advantages, unclarities and vulnerabilities which ensure the plan is grounded in the moment.
  • What we will do – Brainstorming personal and group actions from which are distilled the four to six winning actions that will allow a break through toward the victory.
  • Writing up the Maneuver – Creating the story and describing the path to success, revising the victory if needed, and setting up a calendar with roles, times and critical actions.

The final comment at the end of any maneuver session was:  “Implementing a maneuver is a montage of re-maneuvers. Implementing a maneuver means constantly grasping the given situation, rehearsing the victory, regaining the advantage and refocusing action”

About 25 years ago, we recast this work into the following eight-step Action Planning process now taught by ICAs around the world. 

1 Context and Givens

What is the background?  What decision has already been made? What is the expectation of this group?

2 Stating the Victory

What would success look like?  What are the parameters by which this group feels it can measure success?

3 Current Reality

What is the reality of the moment?  Advantages, Vulnerabilities, Benefits and Dangers

4 Declaring the Commitment

Reflecting on our reality and our image of the victory, what are our individual and group commitments to success?

5 Key Action Brainstorm

A consensus workshop to brainstorm ALL actions to achieve the commitment
organized with work groups in mind

6 Teamwork Calendar

Detailed flow of tasks by workgroups
Calendar with launch actions and final accomplishments of each group

7  Coordination

Calendar adjusted to reflect coordination required among working groups.  Overall cost estimates formulated.  Follow through mechanisms decided.

8  Resolve and Celebration

Conversation to integrate and celebrate the plan and confirm the group resolve

What are the transformational opportunities in the Action Planning process?

The first is usually in the sense of ownership. When one thinks: “This is the job of admin, this is the job of HR, this is not my job”  the Action Planning process asks the question: “Okay, which are things that you can control? Take everything that is not your job or under your control off the table.” The conversation changes when I have ownership. How can we move from where we are toward the reality we choose?  This is the first step in Action Planning - shifting the people involved from observers or victims to players. The method flow helps them to focus their insights and passion on their commitment.

Transformational Action Planning is also about recognising that we are in the midst of movement; and that we are planning actions on the go and not from a static point.  It is about learning to see the action, the context, the relationships and communication, each separate yet systemic in this moment; that realities are changing based on historic patterns and the interplay.

I was working with a group and following up on their action plans. They wanted to focus on results and ask: “We said we would do X, did we succeed or not?  If not, why not?”  

I said that these were great questions but that I had the following four that would also help:

  • How did each member of the team perform compared to the level they had planned? Was it the needed amount? Did the team as a whole also perform to the level anticipated?
  • Where did you succeed and what contributed to that?  Or did not succeed and why?  What was different this time than before?  What are your learnings?
  • If you were going to do the plan again, what might you do differently to make it more effective for the overall need of the organisation, not just for the task named?
  • How well did you work with each other?  Did you feel you were heard or able to speak?  What could you do next time to work together with greater effect?

By the time the reflection was over, the plan had moved on - from the original actions to areas not considered urgent before. They were now urgent when seen in the context of real action and real change, not just results presumed important six months earlier.

Action planning is an ongoing learning and re-maneuvering process.  In action planning and action implementation, we must be sensitive to what is actually happening and being done. Often these factors cannot be seen through old patterns or frameworks.  The interaction and reflection of all involved bring greater awareness and shared context.

Our aim in designing this new training module is to help facilitators recognise and shift the image of Action Planning. There are three levels involved in planning. Each can be a service to a community or client. 

  • Doing: helping a group come to a level of common commitment and clarity of action.
  • Knowing: the first transformational aspect of Action Plan: using the exploration of a situation and learning from action in progress to help the group go beyond a “To Do List” to a re-examination of their context based on what happened from several perspectives of potential change.
  • Being: perceiving the underlying presence, assumptions and values being incorporated or let go, based on the transformation intended as they are exposed through reflection and action.  We use our actions as prototypes for expanding and challenging our sense of reality and ourselves.

When transformation happens, the context shifts and the image changes.   

Our design for the new one-day Action Planning program includes experiencing all eight steps of the process. We will explore Kotter’s Change Framework and Tuckman’s model for team dynamics as they inform or impact the implementation journey.  We will work on the role of facilitator in transformative action planning.  Facilitating what is happening and looking for what’s not happening.  Finally, we want to shift the image of action planning from achieving a result to developing a discipline of learning through action.


Lawrence Philbrook, director of ICA Taiwan, is a facilitator and organizational transformation consultant who has been designing processes for teams and leaders for over 20 years. For more information or feedback, please contact him at icamail@icatw.com

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