The Seductive Lure of the 90-Day Plan

Allan Milne Lees
4 min readJan 15, 2020

How a bad idea usually prevents managers from starting well.

Image credit: USA Today

There’s probably no one who’s worked in a large organization for more than a couple of years who has not experienced the phenomenon of a new manager appearing on the scene who then proceeds to initiate a series of seemingly inexplicable actions during their first three months. Many of these actions are either harmful or downright bone-headed. Very rarely are they cogent, well-planned, and positive.

What lies behind this curious phenomenon?

Please step to center stage: The 90-Day Plan.

The reason for the newly-arrived manager’s bizarre behavior is because they believe that in order to impose their authority and demonstrate their genius, they needed to formulate a 90-day action plan prior to stepping into their new role.

I recently mentored an executive who was transitioning from a role in a global corporation into a more senior role in a much smaller company. She was convinced that success would require her to formulate a decisive and radical 90-day plan but the problem was that she knew almost nothing about the company, nothing whatsoever about the group she would be managing, and nothing about the CEO’s expectations of her. This had not deterred her from creating a skeleton plan, but she was deeply uncertain about its efficacy.

In this regard she was unusual: in my experience, most newly-arriving managers are convinced that their shiny 90-day plan “can’t fail” and will be a brilliant way for them to show everyone around how great a manager they truly are.

As I encouraged her to talk through her doubts, she began to see the obvious problems. What plan could possibly be effective or even relevant when it would be based on zero knowledge of the situation she’d be stepping into? At best it would be pointless; at worst it would be destructive.

We explored the reasons why she felt she needed a 90-day plan and, sure enough, they were all based on her perceived need to impose her authority, demonstrate competence, and provide the illusion of structure in what was going to be a very new and unknown situation for her. In other words, the 90-day plan wasn’t there to help the company she was joining: it was there to help her feel…

Allan Milne Lees

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.