The Seductive Lure of the 90-Day Plan

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 less insecure.

Once she realized this, and realized how self-defeating the 90-day plan idea was, she began to focus on far more useful and practical ways to reduce her feelings of insecurity and anxiety about stepping into a new role in a new company about which she knew almost nothing.

The more we talked, the more she realized she needed to give herself time to learn her way into the company and learn about her team. What was working, what wasn’t working, and why? Who were the key players, who could be improved, and who (if anyone) was a question-mark? What sort of executive team was there, and what sort of corporate culture was really in place? Once she started asking these kinds of questions it became apparent that a far more helpful framework for her was to list all of her questions and formulate a strategy for answering them methodically within a reasonable period of time.

Only after she actually understood the situation would a 90-day action plan make any sense at all, because then it would be based on the reality of her situation and not merely a device to help mitigate her insecurities.

I just wish more managers could be self-aware enough to understand that the illusory 90-day plan rarely does anything other than to make them look foolish in the eyes of their subordinates. Unfortunately, far too many executives and leaders imagine that a “purposeful and dynamic” manager is necessarily a good manager. Optics often count for far more than actual results in many organizations, primarily because we humans are total rubbish at measuring productivity and therefore default to simplistic (and usually misleading) indicators such as how many hours a day someone works, whether or not they work weekends, and how “dynamic” they appear to be in meetings and presentations.

This is why the ritual of the newly-arrived manager operating according to their preconceived 90-day plan will be with us for a long time to come. It may be stupid, it may be counter-productive, it may be actively harmful. But it’s expected, it’s traditional, and it’s familiar. These are all reasons why we cling to things that don’t work, often from one generation to the next.

So we can’t say “RIP, 90-day plan” but at least we can understand why it exists and therefore why our next new manager will come in and proceed to be a magnificent, authoritative, and decisive dickhead.

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.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store