You are over-planning

You are over-planning

I've done my time in the Certainty Mines of Planonia. It is a barren, desolate place. I recognise many of you from there. I'm here to tell you that you don't need to toil away any more. The future will be a lot better if you do less planning.

Plans feel productive. There's so much advice out there telling you to have a three month, twelve month, five year plan. Don't be caught without a plan! What will people think?

It's impossible to predict the future

There's no way to know exactly what the future holds. We can be fairly sure about tomorrow, and take a reasonable stab at what will happen next week. Once things start to get much beyond that timescale, it's pretty much guesswork. Once you get to the kind of timescales common in business planning, it's entirely fiction. Remember, it was only two and a half years ago that the UK voted to leave the EU.

In his book Rework, Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp, recommends replacing the word "plan" with the word "guess". That means your glossy, colourful, neatly bound Business Plan is now a Business Guess. It gives you a much more accurate understanding your certainty level.

Project plans aren't much better. They're guesses with GANTT charts. Great project managers aren't good at planning, because no-one is. They're good at getting clear about what's needed to move in the right direction and dealing with what comes up along the way.

Understand the present

So what can you do if you're only guessing about the future? Understand the present. Understand what you want and what situation you are in right now. What you want is best captured as an intention. I'm a big fan of Simon Sinek's "Start with Why" approach. His "Why, What, How" model can be applied to planning as well as leadership.

Intentions are different to plans. They address the "Why" much more than the "How" and the "What". Intentions are useful in the long-term because they are stable. A heartfelt intention doesn't change because of a good week, or a bad week, or a different geopolitical situation. What really matters to me doesn't suddenly change because things change in the outside world.

How I'm going to support my intentions, and which particular intention I want to devote energy to, changes regularly. I have a good idea what I'll be up to tomorrow, and I'm fairly sure what I'm spending time on over the next few weeks. As we get towards the month scale, things get increasing fuzzy as uncertainty grows. This timescale is all about how your efforts align. How they line up with with your own other efforts, and with those of other people.

What I'm doing to support my current intention, though, changes hour by hour. It depends on how I feel and what opportunities I notice around me. If I'm clear that what I'm drawn towards supports my current "how", which is aligned to my "why", then I'm good. I can relax and enjoy the work I'm doing. I'm not tied to something I thought was a good idea a while back, which I have to make myself do.

I can also take advantage of anything new that comes up. Plans have a habit of giving us tunnel vision. We're so keen to reach the goal we've planned for that we miss the even better outcome that's right beside us. It also means that if I'm wrong about something I haven't devoted a huge amount of effort and resources to finding that out.

OK, plan a little bit

What if you're working on a system where lives are at stake? Where you need to plan in order to safeguard users? Those systems do exist, and do require a higher degree of planning. If the system you are working on is tightly coupled and lives depend on it, then you have my blessing to plan as much as you like.

The thing is, most of us do not work on such systems. All work falls on a continuum between planning at one end, and emergence at the other. Most people instinctively put themselves closer to the "planning" end than they need. This has all sorts of costs. Sometimes you need to pay these costs. Usually you don't.

Remember that whenever you're planning, you're committing to a path based on incomplete knowledge. Outcomes are path-dependent; they are limited by what's gone before. By over-planning, you reduce the number of possible outcomes. If you're unsure about your assumptions this is a risky thing to do.

My name is Matthew and I'm addicted to planning

With apologies to AA, here is a simple twelve nine step programme to get over your planning addiction:

  1. Accept that you cannot predict the future.
  2. Believe that you can have a more effective present if you let go of the urge to plan everything.
  3. Trust that you will be able to cope with unexpected things which happen, as they happen.
  4. Accept that sometimes things will go wrong, but that you will cope, and that things going wrong is vital information.
  5. Get clear about what the underlying intentions are behind your plans. Dig deep and find out why doing what you've planned matters to you.
  6. Work out how those intentions align with your own resources, and those of other people around you.
  7. Decide exactly what you need to do next. Don't worry about any of the other things you could also be doing. Focus on the one thing.
  8. Do the thing. Finish it, or decide it is an experiment better left unfinished and leave it.
  9. Do the next thing. Repeat.

We crave certainty. We want to know what's around the corner. We want to know that we'll be rewarded for the effort we're putting in. But the future is fundamentally uncertain. There's nothing we can do now to change it. Our only control is in the present. The role of planning is to inform and direct actions right now. The future is a huge interconnected web of branching possibilities which emanate from this moment. So devote your energy to what you're doing in the present. If you do that, the future will take care of itself.