“Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth”

John Hollon Leadership, Organizational Development, Talent Strategy

I believe in the importance of having a plan.

Ben Martinez believes this too, as he spelled out so succinctly in The Only Bad Plan Is No Plan here on FOT. As he put it, “My job is to create a plan to better deal with chaos,” a lesson he’s learned while coping with all that has happened in the chaotic year of 2020.

It’s a great point. Having a plan is always a smart move, yet far too many people seems to want to just wing it, both at work and in their personal life.

But Ben’s blog post also got me thinking, because when people start talking about the importance of making plans, my thoughts always go to the wisdom of the famous philosopher/pugilist Mike Tyson, who was once asked if he was worried about Evander Holyfield’s plan going into a championship bout with him.

Tyson’s response became famous because it’s both glib and insightful. He said that, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Planning for when your plan goes south

Asked later what he meant by that, Tyson explained it like this:

“If you’re good and your plan is working, somewhere during the duration of that, the outcome of that event you’re involved in, you’re going to get the wrath, the bad end of the stick. Let’s see how you deal with it. Normally people don’t deal with it that well.”

Yes, Tyson’s quip is about the part of the planning process people don’t really talk about — like what you do when your best laid plans get blown up?  How do you adapt when you take the workplace equivalent of a punch in the mouth?

Last May, a blog post for an Australian company called Commit Works dug into this and had some interesting observations.

Here’s what they said, in part:

“If you’ve created a detailed work plan for your team that fully utilizes your people and equipment and key people call in sick or a machine breaks down. What do you do?

  1. Most of the plan should survive, priority jobs should still happen, and most of the team should be able to carry on doing what they were planned to be doing. So, adapt the current plan to cope with the change. Don’t throw it all out and start again.
  2. The new plan needs to deal with right now reality. In most cases, planners won’t be around to help so your supervisor needs to be able to solve the problem themself. This means they must both understand the plan (the “why” behind the what) and believe that they have the authority to change it. “

In other words, “put a plan together in sufficient detail to ‘win first’ but ensure you can adapt so that one ‘punch in the mouth’ does not result in defeat.

It’s good to be a counterpuncher

Here’s my take: That’s a lot of words to describe what you already know, I suspect, because you can’t do planning for just about anything unless you have a Plan B (or Plan C, D, etc.) that kicks in when the original one goes off the rails.

Everybody needs a backup plan, and everybody knows this even if they don’t describe it quite as colorfully as Mike Tyson did.

David Wyld, a part-time management consultant and full-time professor of strategic management and Southeastern Louisiana University, described it on Medium like this:

“Everybody does have a plan until they get punched in the mouth — the key is planning for what you are going to do AFTER that happens. And whatever the competitive environment, be it is business, in politics, in sports, and yes, in life, the key is how you react to that punch.

In other words, do you have an effective plan to counterpunch? And I use the term counterpunch not so much in the literal sense, but in a figurative way. It is not planning for your plan to fail, but planning on how to respond to what your competition is doing, and yes, how they will inevitably counterpunch to your punch-in the form of you executing your plan?”

Most managers don’t think of themselves like this, but yes, it’s important to be a good counterpuncher, as Prof. Wyld puts it.

Whether you like spots analogies or not, this is a good one.

And I’m with Ben Martinez when he says that “times will get more strange. We should expect some strangeness but be right here, right now, and live in the moment. Be ready to respond with some type of plan. “

He’s spot on about that, but you better be ready to counterpunch as well. After all, that’s what you do when you get whacked in the mouth.