As in so much else, Benjamin Franklin got it right when he said: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
Clear, detailed planning dramatically increases the likelihood of successfully executing any complex task – whether it’s running a busy household or implementing a new software platform.
Two case studies in planning
To see successful planning at work, I’m taken back to Saturday 13 July 1985 and perhaps the most famous concert of all time: Live Aid. Or more specifically, the Live Aid sets of two of the most influential, highly-regarded rock acts of all time – Queen and Led Zeppelin.
The brief given to all the acts performing that day was simple: each had a 20-minute set that would form part of a “global jukebox.” This was not the occasion to utter the words “this next song is from our upcoming album …” In other words, get out on stage, play the hits and raise a lot of money.
Queen was still a popular band at the time, but it was past its 70s peak. Record sales were slipping. A set of gigs in South Africa during the height of the apartheid regime had been controversial. And the year before Live Aid, there was a controversial music video.
Ahead of their Live Aid set, the Queen members understood they faced several challenges:
- The audience was not a typical Queen one – tickets were sold out before Queen was announced as part of the line-up.
- The band would not be afforded the usual soundcheck ahead of its set.
- Generally they didn’t like performing in daylight, yet were scheduled to play at 6.40pm UK time.
- The timeslot meant they would also be live in the US.
Preparation is everything
The band booked a theatre in London and spent a week rehearsing and honing its set list to address the challenges the members felt they were up against.
The planning and preparation Queen and its support team put in resulted in a show-stealing 20-minute performance that almost 40 years later is still considered one of the best ever examples of a live music set. And the impact was felt long after. The gig revitalised the band’s reputation and career, resulting in a huge and highly-successful stadium tour the following year.
Led Zeppelin had not performed since the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980. So its set as part of the Philadelphia leg of Live Aid was touted as a “Led Zeppelin reunion,” with Phil Collins drafted in as drummer. After completing his own performance in London, Collins jetted to Philadelphia via Concorde and performed a short solo set before taking the drum stool behind the remaining Led Zeppelin members. A second drummer, Tony Thompson, was also roped in to play alongside Collins.
The set has since been named one of the worst rock ‘n’ roll reunions of all time. There are a catalogue of reasons why – all of which could have been mitigated with proper planning.
One was a fundamental lack of understanding of the brief.
“I thought it was just going to be low-key and we’d all get together and have a play,” Phil Collins subsequently explained. “But something happened between that conversation and the day – it became a Led Zeppelin reunion.”
The band members had not rehearsed sufficiently either.
According to a Q&A session with The Guardian, Jimmy Page confirmed they had rehearsed for 30 mins to an hour beforehand. Having been in the band together since the late 1960s, the assumption was the remaining Zeppelin members could just pick up and play. Despite a five-year absence, they were all involved in individual projects and were therefore thought to be “game ready.” It was also assumed the drummers knew the songs, when in fact they didn’t know them well enough to play at this level.
Phil Collins represents the over-utilised addition that often gets pulled into projects. Collins almost walked out in the middle of that gig – a sentiment that will chime with many an over-worked team member.
Robert Plant’s voice and Jimmy Page’s guitar were out of tune. And although each knew their own parts, they didn’t work together as a team, which is critical for any project. Robert Plant has since labelled the set an “atrocity,” while Jimmy Page described it as “pretty shambolic”. Who wants that kind of calamity tarnishing their reputation?
Plan for project success
The bands’ contrasting Live Aid sets – and the experience it produced for both the band members and those watching – are a stark illustration of the long-acknowledged fact that if you put time and effort into the planning stage of a project, its execution has a far higher chance of success. Worth remembering the next time you come to do a system implementation.
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