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Plans Are Not Promises

Plans are not promises.

Another parent shared this with me when I had young children. She reminded me to teach my children the difference between plans and promises.

Some parenting examples:

Promises to our children: I’ll always do my best to make sure you have what you need. I’ll love you forever, no matter what.

Plans we make with our children: We’ll go to the zoo on Saturday. We’ll buy you a new bike this summer.

Promises are pledges or commitments, often grounded in deep truths and deep emotions. They’re binding. When we make promises, it’s important to be confident that we’ll be able to keep our promises even when circumstances in our life and environment change.

Plans are intentions. I like to think of them as decisions about actions you’ll take. Plans help us achieve goals like creating fun memories or having one-to-one time with your child. We make plans based on what we know right now about our goals, time, resources, and environment.

Plans change if circumstances change. Changing plans can cause deep disappointment, perhaps expressed through a temper tantrum, when the zoo closes because of a thunderstorm. But being flexible with your plans can also open opportunities like when you’re gifted with free tickets to a carnival on the day you plan to go to the zoo. Assuming your child likes carnivals, the zoo can wait for another day.

I think it’s important to remember the distinction between promises and plans in our organizations, as well. Our vision, mission, and values statements are promises to our community. They name our commitment to the change our organization works to create, declare what we’re going to do, and articulate how we’ll show up in that work for the long-term.

We make plans to move us toward our vision and mission and to live our values. We set goals so we can mark our progress and determine the actions we’ll take to meet the goals. We may plan to launch a new program, win a legislative policy change, or expand our facilities – all in service of our vision and mission.

These plans are not promises, though. They’re intentions. Plans are decisions about how we’ll fulfill your vision and mission at this time, in our ecosystem, with our current analysis of the community, economic, political, cultural, technological, and other factors that influence our work.

And our plans will change. The new program we imagined might get scrapped because something happens to change community needs and priorities. We may be able to move more quickly on our legislative policy change because we get a new state representative. Perhaps a new partnership with an allied organization creates an opportunity to share space so we don’t need to expand our facility.

Things happen. Circumstances change. Opportunities emerge. It becomes necessary, and often beneficial, to change our plans.

We can get ourselves and our organizations in trouble when we treat plans as promises. Our plans become constricting. We become unable to adapt and evolve when there are economic or political changes. We lose our capacity to respond, and sometimes to hear, when our community needs something different than what we planned.

Rigid plans are hard on people, too. When plans are viewed as fixed, as do or die, as this-path-only, the pressure on the people doing the work is immense. We all know that circumstances will change. We know there are many things that could affect the plan that are completely out of our control. We worry that we’re going to be penalized, perhaps even lose our jobs, if we don’t fulfill the plan.

These worries compromise people’s ability to plan and to do the work. They become reluctant to think big because they fear the consequences of failing. So, our plans become smaller. And our organizations don’t get the full benefit of our people's gifts – they aren’t able to bring their expertise, analyses, creativity, and best judgment to fulfilling the mission when they’re locked into fulfilling a plan no matter what.

So, I’ll say it again, plans are not promises.

What can we do to keep promises promises and plans plans?

Start by talking about the difference between promises and plans, between your vision, mission, and values and your plans. Make sure you have shared definitions and everyone knows why you plan.

Then, shorten your planning horizons. Make sure your strategic framework (your vision, mission, values, and strategic purpose) is solid and well communicated as your north star then develop plans for shorter increments of time, perhaps 90 days or one year, whatever makes sense in your environment at the time you’re planning.  

And normalize changing plans in response to changes in your capacity or the environment. Share changes widely and talk about why they’re being made. Regularly ask your team members what has or is changing in their plans.


Many of our organizations have made big promises to our communities. Promises we’ll keep. Use your plans as tools to keep those promises. Respond, flex, adapt.

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