Whatever your plan is, it’s wrong. And it doesn’t matter as long as you can learn fast enough

If the world was simple we’d perhaps be able to plan accurately. But in fact the world is complicated, complex and chaotic and that means planning is a mixture of skill and guesswork. In our plans we just don’t get things right first time. It frustrates me that my plans are often wide of the mark. I feel smug when I plan accurately, but in reality it is mostly by luck (or by changing the plan later to fit reality).

So what should I do? Give up on planning? Resist making commitments? Plan cautiously, adding lots of contingency?

Actually I need to learn faster.

Plan, Do, Check, Change

This Knoco blog post is what caught my attention, with this colourful diagram. The cycle diagram is just a slight variation on Deming’s famous Plan, Do, Check, Act/Adjust (PDCA) cycle for business improvement.

Somehow I was thinking of “slow” replanning cycles, and that the “check” phase was the (only) moment for reflection. In fact, that’s what I said in my recent seminar on reflective practice. But I think I was wrong. This diagram has the word Reflect between all four phases. Learning faster means adapting quicker DURING the execution of the plan. We need to get round that cycle more times.

Just like microprocessors get faster every year, our “clock speed” of learning from experience needs to increase.

It’s not just that we learn 70% of what we learn from personal experience (in the 70:20:10 model), there’s a real truth that if we rely exclusively on the insights of the past (the old plan) we won’t get the optimum outcome.

Ackoff classifies attitudes to planning like this:

  • Inactivism – put effort into maintaining the status quo, delay progress with process, require ever more senior authority for any change
  • Reactivism – react to problems by throwing more resources at the project. The most senior person’s opinion wins over competence.
  • Preactivism – focussed on forecasting figures and on the planning activity itself rather than the outcomes
  • Interactivism – adjusting and responding as events unfold

Obviously these are caricatures, but I wonder which you recognise in yourself? The mirror tells me that I am not always perfect in my own approach!

Expect to change the plan

We have to be agile and adaptive, and what I put in brackets above (changing the plan later to fit reality) is exactly the right strategy.

Of course it is still useful to do a work breakdown, tease out dependencies, think about who and how much. I think we should analyse as best we can based on real data and observations, but limit the effort we put into planning based on flaky assumptions.

So what do you think? Is planning fundamentally broken in a complex world, or how do you adapt your plans (in reality).


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