How much “prep” do you really need?

One of the greatest challenges in communication and leadership revolves around preparation and improvisation.

This slogan speaks to the value of decisive action

This slogan speaks to the value of decisive action

Sometimes the amount of preparation done for a presentation, a facilitation, a meeting, an interview, or a conversation is dictated by how much time is available. On a short deadline, preparation and planning time might give way to the necessity to improvise. The 80% rule of thumb, often attributed to the US Marine Corps, is a splendid example of this. This guideline specifies that you act when you gather 80% of the information that you need. The premise is that decisive action with an 80% solution is better than no action at all and lives in the tactical adage:

“Decisions without actions are pointless.”
“Actions without decisions are reckless”

It’s a testament to boldness over hesitation.

In other instances, preparation and planning time is influenced by personal operating style and preference. Some of us excel with an unstructured and organic approach; others require the rigor of planning to be at their maximum level of comfort, confidence, and performance. That’s not to say that “improvisers” can’t plan or “planners” don’t improvise. Mark Twain’s speaks to this:

“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”

I appreciate Twain’s perspective because it recognizes the relationship between these two, seemingly opposed, elements and alludes that successful improvisation requires a foundation of preparation.

This concept entered my life last week. I was involved in the delivery of a 3-day education session where most members of the delivery team were not able to dedicate the preparation time that they normally would have liked to. Since postponing the event was not an option, as a team, we realized that that there were times in the session that we would have to “wing it.” Interestingly, after identifying this reality, the team felt loose and confident on the eve of our delivery.

So how did it go? Well, good and not so good. For the first two days we were right on spot. Our knowledge, experience, ability to improvise, and our teamwork allowed us to perform swimmingly despite our relatively skimpy preparation. The trajectory was an out of the park home run. The last day; however, hit a wall, leaving us with a mere triple – perhaps even a solid double. Without coincidence, day three was the least planned and coordinated of our session.

Furthermore, looking back on it, we dodged a couple of bullets. Our main speaker was travelling in from Calgary, never a certainty in a Northern British Columbia winter; and, on the first day, the lead person of our delivery team lead was feeling ill. Luckily, the weather held and our lead was able to grit it out. With our lean preparation, we didn’t have contingencies in place to easily overcome these potential challenges.

My take home lesson is that while improvisation is sometimes necessary, being too cavalier with preparation will eventually lead to disaster, no matter the skill and confidence of the performers.

I would love to hear your stories about this?

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4 Responses to How much “prep” do you really need?

  1. Nancy Elliot says:

    A good adage that one of my mentors always said is “Care to Prepare”. Then, when things go off the rails, I think I feel more confident because I have a deeper ‘bag’ of knowledge to draw from….

    I appreciate being reminded of the 80/20 adage! thanks

    • gsjonuk says:

      I completely agree with you Nancy; the more we prepare the more nimble we can be in the moment.

      Interestingly, I didn’t see this particular application of the 80/20 rule (AKA the Pareto principle) when I scanned it’s Wikipedia entry yesterday.

  2. Kevin Kriese says:

    Greg; you may have read “Blink” which I think describes this well. Our instincts, when derived from a massive base of knowledge and experience, are incredibly fast and accurate. However, its also clear that our instinctive systems (read “Thinking fast and slow” for more on this) fail when not backed up by careful thought and real experience.

    I think the key here is to know when you have enough experience to let the prep fade into the background a little. My observation is that’s also when the best delivery happens as its not scripted and flows more in tune with the participants.


    • gsjonuk says:

      Good point Kevin! I’ve found peoples’ work comes when they trust their accumulated knowledge and skill-building and don’t try to follow a script.

      When I started public speaking, I attempt to recite my speeches verbatim. Then, in a speech contest I forgot a phrase when an audience member, my baby daughter, began crying furiously. I was unable to continue get on track because I practiced to avoid imperfection not adjust to imperfection.

      Now I rarely write down my presentations until I have the majority formed and I practice trying to roll with faux paxs. I may have lost the preciseness of my words; however, I figure I have more brain cells left to pay attention to my tone and body language and adjusting to the audience’s reaction.

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