Why Operational Plans Fail — The Perils of Groupthink and Assumption

Victor Leung
3 min readJun 8, 2024


I was on a business trip to Vietnam last week, and I had a reflection while visiting my client. In any organization, strategic planning is crucial for success. Imagine a scenario where a leader gathers key personnel and top planners to draft an operational plan for the upcoming year. These individuals share a common environment, similar training, and mutual experiences within a hierarchical structure. As they convene, the process appears seamless: decisions align with what they believe the leader wants, what senior personnel suggest, and what everyone collectively “knows” about the organization and its operational landscape. The plan is drafted, approved, and implemented. Yet, it fails.

Why Plans Fail

Misunderstanding Leadership Intentions

One critical reason for the failure could be a fundamental misunderstanding of the leader’s intentions. Even though the group aims to please and align with the leader’s vision, their interpretation might be flawed. Miscommunication or lack of clarity from the leader can lead to decisions that deviate from the intended strategy.

Reliance on Assumptions

Another pitfall is the reliance on “what everyone knows” about the organization and its environment. These assumptions might be outdated or incorrect. When decisions are based on unverified beliefs, the plan is built on a shaky foundation.

Inertia and Resistance to Change

Organizations often fall into the trap of “doing things the way they’ve always been done.” This inertia prevents the exploration of alternative approaches and stifles innovation. By not challenging the status quo, organizations miss opportunities to improve and adapt to new challenges.

Ignoring Complex and Ambiguous Issues

Complex and ambiguous issues are often sidelined during planning sessions. These topics are perceived as too difficult to address, leading to gaps in the plan. Ignoring these critical areas can have significant repercussions when the plan encounters real-world scenarios.

Fear of Contradicting Senior Personnel

Junior team members may recognize potential flaws or have innovative ideas but fear contradicting senior personnel or subject matter experts. This fear stifles open dialogue and prevents valuable insights from surfacing.

External Factors

External factors, such as the actions of competitors or unforeseen adversarial actions, can derail even the best-laid plans. These factors are often unpredictable and require a level of flexibility and adaptability that rigid plans cannot accommodate.

Human Behavior and Group Dynamics

Patterns of Behavior

Humans develop patterns of behavior to achieve goals with minimal effort. We learn to cooperate and agree with others to gain acceptance and avoid conflict. While these behaviors can be beneficial, they can also lead to groupthink, where dissenting opinions are suppressed, and critical thinking is bypassed.

Cognitive Shortcuts

To save time and energy, we use cognitive shortcuts, applying familiar solutions to new problems, even when they don’t fit perfectly. This can lead to oversights and the application of inappropriate strategies.

The Influence of Extroverts

In group settings, extroverts often dominate discussions, while introverts, despite having valuable ideas, may remain silent. This dynamic can result in a narrow range of ideas and solutions being considered.

Overcoming These Challenges

Foster Open Communication

Encouraging open communication and creating a safe environment for all team members to voice their opinions is crucial. Leaders should actively seek input from junior members and introverts, ensuring diverse perspectives are considered.

Challenge Assumptions

Regularly questioning and challenging assumptions helps prevent reliance on outdated or incorrect information. This practice encourages critical thinking and keeps the planning process grounded in reality.

Embrace Change and Innovation

Organizations should cultivate a culture that embraces change and innovation. Encouraging experimentation and considering alternative approaches can lead to more robust and adaptable plans.

Address Complex Issues

Rather than ignoring complex and ambiguous issues, teams should tackle them head-on. Breaking down these challenges into manageable parts and addressing them systematically can prevent gaps in the plan.

Monitor External Factors

Maintaining awareness of external factors and being prepared to adapt plans as needed can help mitigate the impact of unforeseen events. Flexibility and resilience are key components of successful operational planning.

In conclusion, while the planning process may appear smooth and collaborative, underlying issues such as misunderstanding leadership intentions, reliance on assumptions, resistance to change, and group dynamics can lead to failure. By fostering open communication, challenging assumptions, embracing innovation, addressing complex issues, and remaining adaptable, organizations can increase the odds of success and develop robust operational plans.

Originally published at https://victorleungtw.com.



Victor Leung

I write about business, technology and personal development