The Eraser Test: How to Know When It’s Time for a Change

How do we know when to change the plan?

A casual remark by a friend last week got me thinking about the idea of flexibility and change.  As leaders, we choose the objectives and set the course.  But once we’re underway, how do we know if we should keep on keeping on, or if we need to change direction?  The Eraser test.

The Eraser Test - How to Know When Its Time for a Change

The Weather Gets a Vote

“Better write that one in pencil” my friend said.

It was during a weekly breakfast I enjoy with friends at the American Legion.  The phrase tumbled out sometime after the communal plate of hash browns had made the rounds but before the second coffee urn arrived.

I can’t even remember what we were talking about, but someone was making plans.  Maybe he was taking his family to the Mall of America. 

Given that this is Minnesota in the winter there are no sure bets.  In fact, this February we saw 39 inches of snow – the fourth most of any month on record for the Twin Cities area.

Combine that with temperatures that would make a polar bear reach for a turtleneck (-14 F the other morning), and anything involving travel or outdoor activity is definitely not a foregone conclusion.

The weather gets a vote, hence the pencil comment from my wise friend.  Subtext:  expect change, and keep that eraser handy

Simple enough.  But this “pencil it in” idea applies to more than just snowflakes blowing sideways in the great white north, and is worth our attention as leaders.

The Plan is Nothing

Let’s start with a variant of this idea, which comes via one of my favorite Eisenhower quotes:

Planning is everything. The Plan is nothing. – Eisenhower Click To Tweet

Ike wasn’t thinking about Minnesota snow storms.  He was talking more about planning for major emergencies, when your whole operation is going sideways.  As Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, he knew a thing or two about planning.

In the case of emergencies, he said that the first thing to do is “to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window.”  By definition, any plans we make were based on assumptions that no longer hold true – that’s what makes it an emergency.

Like the weather, the enemy gets a vote.  He doesn’t always do what we expect him to, and if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re headed for trouble.  We have to be ready to make a change.

So from local blizzards to national emergencies if we’re making plans, we’re doing it with a pencil.  What ties them together?

The things we write with a pen.

Things to Write in Ink

The Eraser Test - Things to Write in PenWhat drives all this planning are the things we’re trying to accomplish, whether it’s making it to the mall, preserving national security, or something in between.

And as leaders devising our major objectives, there are two things we have to keep in mind as we reach for them:

1.  The vision.  Where are we ultimately trying to go, and what does it look like when we get there? 

A good, clear vision guides the team.  Much like a mountain summit, it doesn’t move, but there are plenty of routes to get there.  If we keep moving the mountain around it makes it hard to make any progress.

Invest the necessary time and involve the team in coming up with a vision that will inspire, then write it out in ink.  Maybe with a big Sharpie.

2.  Team values and culture.  What condition do we want to be in as a team when we get there? 

These team norms guide how we interact with each other, and how our team interacts with the world.  Spell them out in ink, talk about them regularly, and most importantly live by them in all things large and small.

The best way to strengthen team values is to live by them in all things large and small. Click To Tweet

For a great example of what strong culture in action looks like, check out what I saw the U.S. Army Rangers do one day when things started falling apart.

Things to Write in Pencil:

The Eraser Test - Things We Write in PencilWhat do we write in pencil?  Pretty much everything else.

But that doesn’t mean we walk around carrying our pencils eraser-first.

A friend once half-jokingly remarked that “indecision is the key to flexibility.”  He was commenting on what he perceived as his leader’s wishy-washyness at the time.  The leader’s failure to commit to a clear course of action might have kept options open, but it also prevented focused, sustained effort.  Progress stalled in confusion.

That’s not the way we want to lead our teams.  Consistency and commitment are two of the elements that create trust: we need to guard these jealously.  We have to set the best course we can, then stick with it.

But at the same time, we should keep in mind Emerson’s point that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  Sometimes underlying assumptions are revealed to be unfounded, circumstances change, or there happens to be a white-out on I-494. 

The Eraser Test

What to do?  Apply the eraser test.  Simply ask these two questions:

  1. Will the path we have carefully chosen still take us to our objective?
  2. Is this path in keeping with the values we aspire to?

If the answer is yes to both, we can put that pencil back in our pocket protector and keep moving forward.

If the answer is no to either, it’s time to stop and reconsider.

Maybe the purpose (vision) of our trip to the mall was to have some fun family bonding time by catching a movie.  If there’s a blizzard outside, the underlying assumption of safe travel is no longer valid.  The first condition of the test comes into question; throw the plan out the window.

If we make it there but I force everyone watch the latest slasher movie even though I’m the only one who wants to see it, it violates our family norms of mutual respect.  It damages the team.  Eraser time.

We could accomplish the same thing by building a homemade pizza together and bringing up something on Netflix that we all agree on.

The idea comes down to this:  The long-term goals should be relatively fixed, but the means by which we get there shouldn’t.

Don't get married to the plan. Click To Tweet

Eraser Test – The Takeaway

The role of the leader is a duality.  On one hand, we set the direction and inspire our team towards it.  We translate the vision into reality by making a plan and sticking with it. 

Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality. - Warren G. Bennis Click To Tweet

Often the path to growth and success requires dogged persistence, periods of discomfort, and a strong commitment to daily incremental improvement.  Even when, in fact especially when, things get hard. 

The Eraser Test doesn’t ask about “hard.”

But we also have to be attuned to the need for a change when conditions warrant.  Just because all the other ants are going down a certain path doesn’t mean that is the right direction for us. To be blind to the changing circumstances around us is to risk not reaching the objective we are striving for, or damaging the team in the process.

That’s why we wrote our plans in pencil, and that’s why we have an eraser.

The role of the leader is to always be applying the Eraser Test and asking if the things we wrote in pencil are in harmony with the things we wrote in ink.

The moment we become complacent and stop asking these questions is the moment we stop leading.

The moment we become complacent is the moment we stop leading. Click To Tweet

So make those plans.  Write them firmly.  In pencil. 

And keep that eraser handy.

Lead on!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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