Reduce the risks of “planning to fail” by engaging a technical communicator

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One of the less common but more important roles we technical communicators take on involves the creation or revision of planning documents (plans for short). Unfortunately, plans are often poorly written. Government plans are notorious for this problem: they often seem as if they were designed to fail. Rather than simple misfortune, governments hesitate to act on specific recommendations because doing so would be expensive, controversial, unpopular, or difficult. By creating a plausible and well-documented plan, a government can eliminate the need to act. In effect, they transform an action plan into an inaction plan.

We can’t do much when the purpose of creating a plan is to avoid action. Fortunately for us, plans more often fail because they’re written by people with good intentions but who aren’t professional planners, even if they’re experts in other areas. They omit key ingredients that are required for success—those that will produce action rather than a document that’s shelved and forgotten.

Why engage a technical communicators to craft plans with a greater chance of success? Because, having learned to focus on user needs, we can refocus a plan to meet the needs of those will eventually use it. That is, we can help transform an inaction plan into something actionable that will produce the desired results. A successful plan has five key ingredients:

  • A clear statement of goals
  • A suitable budget
  • Clear deliverables
  • Responsibility
  • Deadlines

Clear statement of goals

It seems obvious that you can’t accomplish your goals if you don’t define them, but the goals in many plans are imprecise, overly general, qualitative, or subjective. Sometimes they share all of these flaws. Technical communicators are good at spotting these problems and fixing them. We can:

  • Make imprecise and non-specific wordings precise and specific.
  • Transform general statements into narrowly focused statements, while also identifying exceptions that require their own solutions.
  • Transform qualitative descriptions into quantitative descriptions that form the basis for the deliverables.
  • Identify subjective descriptions and transform them into something more objective.

A suitable budget

Even communicators who manage a communication department or who are self-employed rarely fill the role of an economist or bookkeeper. As a result, we may not be the best choice to create the budget for a plan. However, our valuable skills include fact-checking and research. In the context of planning, we can use these skills to provide a reality check on budget estimates and address potential problems, such as:

  • identifying actions and deliverables that haven’t been included in the budget
  •  checking the totals to ensure that they add up.

In addition, we can interview the planner’s managers to learn typical costs from previous projects or standard fees such as “chargebacks” that the employer uses to allocate costs to the groups that must pay them. If that information isn’t available, we can use our network of colleagues to obtain additional data. Most are willing to share such estimates with colleagues if the information is suitably anonymized.


Every action proposed in a plan must have at least one associated “deliverable”, a term that refers to a service, a result, or a tangible good that must be delivered within a specified timeframe to be useful. For example, many performance evaluations depend heavily on deliverables to measure success. Large or complex plans often omit deliverables or leave them unspecified. We can identify such omissions and propose suitable fixes. Deliverables must, like goals, be precise and specific (e.g., measurable), narrowly focused, quantitative rather than qualitative, and objective rather than subjective. We can help ensure that all defined deliverables meet each of these criteria.


Actions that aren’t assigned to someone (or several someones in the case of a team) who will be held accountable will never be performed. Nor will the result be measured or analyzed. Particularly for large plans or plans created under deadline pressure, it’s easy to miss assigning one or more goals to people who are responsible for fulfilling them.

Editors and technical communicators can also spot such omissions more easily than authors who have read and revised their plan so often that they can no longer see what they’re reading. We can also determine whether any individuals named in the plan have been overloaded and will need help, and which individuals may have time to help them.

Just as important, we can also help these people to ensure that their deliverables meet the stated criteria included in the plan. Editors are particularly good at this, since we have long experience evaluating documents against a published standard, such as a publisher’s author guidelines, an employer’s preferred style guide, or a technical standard.


The failure to specify deadlines is one of the biggest failures of planning. We can recognize that failure easily in plans that rely instead on weasel words such as “as soon as possible”, “in a timely manner”, or “with all due haste”. A second source of failure is failing to set reasonable deadlines. Good planners always check with the people who are responsible for each deadline to ensure that it is feasible given the other constraints they face. Learning this at the start makes it possible to solve the problem. Another source of failure is forgetting to monitor progress towards a deadline, and a successful plan includes a clear statement of how progress will be monitored. If we discover a problem right before a deadline, there’s no time to fix it.

In the manner of good project managers, we communicators can help with all of these problems: We can identify vague deadlines and help make them precise. We can work with each person responsible for each deliverable to ensure the deadline is reasonable. And we can monitor progress towards each deadline and offer help to bring someone back on schedule, thereby sparing them the embarrassment of contributing to the plan’s failure.

Plan to succeed

Even if we take these steps, there are many reasons a plan may fail, including unanticipated changes in circumstances, human error, and random bad luck. But including each of these key ingredients and the means to accomplish them in the plan greatly reduces the likelihood of failure and gives us time and resources to deal with the surprises that inevitably appear. Given how easy it is to design a plan to succeed, why not engage a technical communicator to avoid planning to fail?

Bette Frick

3 years ago

Very clear, Geoff, and I love “anonymized”!

However, I noticed a few mistakes…would you like me to edit your document (for free)? I’m looking for a few new clients and I’d love to help you make your great writing even better.

Have a great weekend/holiday, Geoff!

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