What kinds of plans do you write? Environmental management plans? Policy plans? Catchment management plans? Asset management plans? Training plans?

How well do they work? Have you tracked their implementation and outcomes?

Too many people dread doing that: when I asked someone if they had evaluated the effectiveness of their earlier plans before starting on their next dazzling effort, they said:

“Oh, we couldn’t possibly do that – there’d be too much blood on the floor!”

That view is so sad – and it’s inimical to organisational learning and continual improvement. So on we go, repeating our mistakes instead of learning from them.

Why am I talking about plans right now? Because with the global and local skills shortages we face, just as we want to build back better from Covid-19, we have never needed good plans more, to guide our delivery of the professional and vocational workforce training that will turn every job into a green job.

How do I define a “good” plan? Simple: it’s one whose implementation and outcomes can be tracked and measured.

But too many plans are flawed – and there are just two main reasons why they fail to deliver their anticipated outcomes.

Take the test!

How good are your plans? Test your plan logic by answering these three diagnostic questions focused on just one aspect of your plan: do you always use the same word to refer to the same thing? Your answers will earn you some free prizes – and will reveal some of the common errors I look for.

Quick Quiz

  1. Scan your table of contents. Consider the words ‘effect’, ‘result’, ‘outcome’, and the words ‘issue’, ‘problem’, ‘matter’. Compare the headings in the chapters on issues and outcomes (or the equivalent terms). Are those headings using the same words to refer to the same things?

Score plus 1 if all words seem to be consistently used. Score minus 1 if you see inconsistencies.

  1. Now focus on the headings in the chapters on actions and monitoring. Are the words used consistent between them? Are the words also consistent with those used when identifying issues?

Score plus 1 if all words seem to be consistently used. Score minus 1 if you see inconsistencies.

  1. Lastly, loop back to compare the headings in the chapters on issues, actions and monitoring with the desired outcomes – the reasons we’re doing all this. Are the words used consistent between them all? Of course one action taken to address a given environmental issue will deliver many beneficial outcomes for other issues too, and this can be captured in a simple table – there is a link to this below.

Score plus 1 if all words seem to be consistently used. Minus 1 if you see inconsistencies.

How did you score and what does it mean?

–3: You may be using key words interchangeably, which will lead to confusion. Technical writing must use words in a consistent way. Consider creating a glossary to define the terms you use, based on the law, policy or technical context of your plan. Then always use the same word to refer to the same thing.

0: You probably have a degree of consistency in your use of key words and a degree of logical flow in your plan contents. Well done! Make sure you join all the the rest of the dots, too.

+3: You have a very consistent use of key words and a clear linear logic in your table of contents. Despite the complexity of the interactions between actions, issues and outcomes, your use of key words can be followed throughout the narrative thread of your plan – its internal plan logic. Great work!

Read on to find out what plan logic means for the effectiveness of your plans – and to find out where you can collect your free prizes!

But first, some context. Water infrastructure has been in the news lately – and not in a good way, with industrial contaminants and our capital city’s water woes all over the nation’s air waves and news pages (1). Such publicity is painful for our diligent and professional industry. And the fact is that our Three Waters and other infrastructure deficits are nation-wide and have been many decades in the making, to the extent that communities are now questioning our infrastructure planning.

New Zealand has developed world-leading asset management systems (2) – so why do our asset management and other plans fail?

Here we enter the realm of Plan Logic. The diagram above shows how our plans are informed by often unconscious assumptions about causality – how things work; and our theory of change – what interventions we believe will make the difference we want.

I’ve evaluated the effectiveness of numerous Integrated Catchment (watershed) Management Plans, or ICMPs, building on world-leading PUCM (3) research into the effectiveness of plans written under the Resource Management Act. The PUCM team and I consistently found that most such plans are written in a way that makes it impossible to track and evaluate their implementation and outcomes.

The two main ways plans fail

Plans fail in two main ways, as summarised in this quote from Chapter 3.6 of my book (4, p72):

  • implementation failure – that is, where expected outcomes are not achieved due to poor plan implementation, and
  • plan failure – that is, where the plan’s internal logic is flawed and the chosen methods are unable to achieve the expected outcomes, or the indicators selected are not the right ones to demonstrate the desired outcomes, or monitoring across all the outcomes is inadequate.”

Under-funding is major source of both types of failure. Exasperated by this, in a meeting some years ago I exclaimed:

“Catchment management is always funded just to the point of failure – and never beyond!”

This is true of asset management, catchment management, training and policy plans alike. What’s more, this has been true of Auckland’s planning since the first plans were written over 100 years ago.

Mark Davey examined the history of plans for Auckland in his 2014 PhD thesis, “The promise of spatial planning in Auckland’s new ‘Super-City’: rhetoric and reality” (5). Mark presented on this topic at a workshop I co-facilitated that was focused on why plans fail, and what struck me about his presentation was how little central government funding regional and territorial government in New Zealand receives, especially compared with the gold-standard Scandi-nations.

Our local government funding failures have been highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic, where councils in New Zealand lost up to 50% of their income during lockdowns. This poses real issues for environmental and asset management, which suffer slow-motion but massive setbacks (setbacks that take years of intensive and expensive work to claw back from) when the funding tap is turned off and on.

Good funding for environmental management is massively important right now as our Government sets up a far-reaching suite of environmental reforms. But we also face a massive local and global skills shortage. If we are to effectively implement our environmental reforms, we need to massively grow our professional and vocational skills and headcount – our capability and our capacity to do the job as well as it deserves.

We need robust, doable and trackable strategies and plans for rolling out environmental training – and if we’re to do the job well, we need three key things:

  • decent funding
  • decent planning
  • decent training.

Support for growing our capability

In New Zealand, the term ‘capability’ is mentioned seven times in the Water Services Regulator Act and six times in the Water Services Bill. It gets ten mentions in the Climate Change Commission’s draft advice on reducing Aotearoa’s greenhouse gas emissions. Add to that the Reform of Vocational Education; the reform of the Resource Management Act; the National Policy Statement: Freshwater; legislative enshrinement of te Mana o te Wai; and the work of the Infrastructure Commission and we get the message – enhanced capability and capacity – industry training – are at the heart of all these reforms.

Check out these great quotes:

“Current approaches to skills and training will need to change to prepare the current and future workforce for rapid change. This includes changes to support workers through the transition, and to prepare displaced workers for the new job opportunities that will emerge with it.” (6)

Additional resources for the transition to new resource management legislation should “be provided for mana whenua and key agencies” and the “Ministry for the Environment should work with professional institutes and organisations to ensure those administering the reformed RMA are appropriately equipped and upskilled to implement it.” (7)

And that’s why, if we are to effectively use our decent funding to deliver on these capability and capacity needs, we need to know how to write Good Plans – plans whose implementation and outcomes can be tracked and evaluated.

Below are some key links that will help you take this further.

Want more support? Just contact me for a free 30-minute no-obligation chat!

How to write “good” plans

  • My favourite formula for writing a good plan is the Orders of Outcomes framework. My colleague Susie Wood rightly points out that it’s a bit linear, when things are actually all interconnected – but I just love the concept of a 1-page table to summarise your whole plan! The Orders of Outcomes framework was developed by Professor Stephen Olsen of Rhode Island University after he saw too many ecosystem-based management plans fail. He devised the framework specifically for complex estuarine ecosystems, and I’ve used it for many other environmental topics including terrestrial biodiversity and biosecurity and more. It’s essentially a logic model. Stephen’s work was taken up by the United Nations as referenced below (8)
  • To learn more about logic models, go to Dr Will Allen’s wonderful website and click on the tab that says PM&E, which stands for planning, monitoring and evaluation. Last accessed on 16 February 20-21 the site is a goldmine!

 Strategies and plans for great environmental training

  • Check out my unique strategic training model here. Already adopted by Water New Zealand (9) for the stormwater sector, it enables experts within the water sector to develop, deliver and evaluate the results of the training needed to enhance industry capability and capacity. This includes globally acknowledged methods for measuring the financial ROI on their training, including monetising beneficial outcomes for people and the environment.
  • And find out more about my practical strategy for how Aotearoa New Zealand can grow its own environmental professional and vocational training capability – and fast – here.

It’s all about Learning for Life on Earth.

Contact me today and book a free consultation to discuss how my strategic training can meet your organisation’s environmental training needs – I’d love to chat with you!

Done the quiz? Collect your free prizes here:

You can download the free Action Planner and 30 free resources that accompany my book from here.

And the simple table showing how to track multiple outcomes from single actions is on page 106 of my book as “Table 4.1 Tracking outcomes for others to count: other benefits of stream enhancement measures”.

Go on, buy the book – it’s a great investment!

Links and references

(1) See for example the article at https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018781432/wellington-water-under-the-pump-after-more-burst-pipes

(2) See the great asset management work of the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia (IPWEA), going “beyond NAMS”, the former National Asset Management Systems book, here: https://www.ipwea.org/communities/am/assetmanagement

(3) Explore the outstanding work of the #PUCM team into the effectiveness of RMA and other plans here: https://researchcommons.waikato.ac.nz/handle/10289/895. You can find out more about good plans at https://www.qualityplanning.org.nz/

(4) Buy my book and download the free Action Planner and 30 other free resources that go with it here: https://esst.institute/clare-feeneys-books/

(5) Download Mark Davey’s PhD thesis here: https://researchspace.auckland.ac.nz/handle/2292/23943

(6) The New Zealand Climate Change Commission Draft Advice for Consultation 31 January 2021, Ch 5.10, p 102. Downloadable from https://www.climatecommission.govt.nz/get-involved/our-advice-and-evidence/

(7) Resource Management Review Panel (2020 New Directions for Resource Management in New Zealand. A report by an independent panel chaired by retired Court of Appeal Judge, Hon Tony Randerson, QC. July 2020, page 481. Downloadable from https://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/rma/new-directions-resource-management-new-zealand [accessed 30 July 2020].

(8) UNEP/GPA (United Nations Environment Programme/Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities, of the United Nations Environment Programme) (2006) Ecosystem-based management: markers for assessing progress. UNEP/GPA, The Hague. Downloadable from www.unenvironment.org/resources/report/ecosystems-based-management-markers-assessing-progress [accessed 16 February 2021].

(9) See the Water New Zealand Stormwater Education Training and Sector Development Plan, now open for industry comment on the page at https://www.waternz.org.nz/Story?Action=View&Story_id=1255

(10) A detailed attribution for Georges Box’s quote may be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_models_are_wrong [accessed 15 August 2019].

(11) According to en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Milton_Friedman. Milton Friedman said this on 7 December 1975 in an interview with Richard Heffner on The Open Mind television series – see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Open_Mind_(TV_series) [both sites accessed 5 September 2019]

(12) Most likely a condensed version of a quote from Peter Drucker listed at en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Effectiveness; namely ‘It is fundamentally the confusion between effectiveness and efficiency that stands between doing the right things and doing things right. There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all’ Referenced from Drucker, P. (1963) Managing for Business Effectiveness. Harvard Business Review Reprint Service pages 53–60. [Accessed 5 September 2019.]