Not long ago, the division head of a multinational manufacturing company had a problem. After receiving an aggressive 12% annual growth target, she met with her team, and after a lot of research, meetings, and debates, they built a strategic plan around 17 key initiatives ranging from the overhaul of a production facility in Nebraska to fully integrating a new distributor in Nigeria. Everyone on the team was on board with the plan, and they were optimistic about its outcome. But just a weeks before the start of the fiscal year, they began to doubt their abilities to execute so many initiatives at once and they started second-guessing their overall direction.
What happened? Was it a case of performance anxiety? Was the plan truly flawed? Was the team just being lazy or disloyal?
None of the above. The team lost commitment because they suffered from a very common problem called planner’s remorse.
Just like the buyer’s remorse people feel after buying a car or a house, planner’s remorse is the natural sense of regret we sometimes feel after buying into a plan. It is the same psychological phenomenon that gives fiancés cold feet and causes negotiators to back out of deals during the cooling-off period. Immediately after deciding to pursue a course of action, we often experience a kind of euphoria because switching gears from contemplation to action activates a different part of our brains. But the bliss is fleeting. After a few days, our brains very predictably return to normal and euphoria gives way to remorse.
The big difference between buyer’s remorse and planner’s remorse is that the performance of a car or a house doesn’t change based on how we feel after we buy it. But the performance of a plan does change based on the attitude of the people implementing it. If a management team is wishy-washy about a strategic plan, they can rob themselves of the psychological commitment they’ll need to execute effectively, as well as the enthusiasm they’ll need to get everyone else onboard.
It turns out, however, that our brains are wired in a way that allows us to transform planner’s remorse into planner’s resolve.
A series of experiments (PDF) by Gergana Nenkov and Peter Gollwitzer showed that deliberation has very different effects on our minds depending on whether it happens before a decision or after a decision.