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The Balance of Planning and Spontaneity

| September 1, 2015

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading, The Balance of Planning and Spontaneity – What We Can Learn From Bilbo Baggins’s Journey Through Mirkwood, comes from the pen of David Kaplan – writer, software developer, and all around thinker of wacky thoughts.  It was published on in their Life Hack: Your Story, Experience, etc. blog which shares the life story and experience of a number of writers.

As Kaplan notes, “Plans sometimes have detrimental effects when they are chiseled in stone.”  And, too often that is actually what we do.  The difficulty with even the best-laid plans is that there is always unexpected, unplanned-for change.  Our planning assumes a model of the future that is certain and fully under our control.  As these unexpected things occur, we must have the capability to change the plan.  We do this informally when the plan is for something small but must have a formal mechanism when the plan is large, complex, and involves others.  Kaplan argues that we need to build spontaneity into our plans by setting specific times to do a status check, comparing the plan to “where you actually are,” and recommitting to or revising the plan.  If you need motivation, think of your own plans that did not go as you expected, or about what happened in the corporate world to the plans of companies like Blockbuster.

Methodologies including agile development and those discussed in Eric Ries’ book, The Lean Startup, were created to address this problem and to help people think about organizational planning in a different way.  When you plan, you don’t have complete knowledge about the future.  Along the way, as you do the work, circumstances change, and you learn, if you are open to seeing in a different way.  And, as you learn and as the work unfolds, you either continue forward recommitting to the original plan or you revise the plan.

Another way to think about this is to consider the specific part of your future state that you want to work on now.  Then, develop a solid plan for a short period of time (perhaps only the next few weeks) with an outline of the plan to go the remainder of the distance.  At the end of the short period, evaluate your results to date and what you’ve learned, and detail the plan for the next short period of time.  Over a succession of cycles, you reach your objective.

In his essay, Kaplan reminds us of the experience of Bilbo Baggins in the middle of The Hobbit.  Bilbo and the dwarfs enter the Mirkwood forest.  Their goal was to get to the other side of the forest.  The plan, written by Gandalf, who wasn’t going to make the journey, was very simple:  “stay on the path.”

Along the journey, the dwarfs became disgruntled, it was taking too long.  Bilbo climbed a tree hoping to be able to gauge their progress.  But he was blinded by the bright sun and couldn’t see that they had almost reached their goal.  So, when he descended, he delivered what turned out to be a false report, demoralizing his fellow travelers, resulting in their turning from the path, and getting in trouble with the giant spiders.

What can we learn from this story:

1.  Knowledgeable individuals, who will be involved in the work, must be deeply involved in the planning.  In particular, don’t take the word of an uninvolved “wizard.”

2.  Plans need frequent built-in measurements and review periods.  You have to “stick your head above the trees” and make an accurate assessment so that you know how your plan is working.  The measurements must return results that accurately gauge the team’s progress towards the goal.

3. Don’t overestimate your understanding of the environment and your ability to predict the future.  This kind of arrogance will most likely be very damaging.  Even for good goals, the ultimate path will have some degree of unpredictability.  Accept the chaos!  Learn from it!

4.  Too often people get tired of the plan and head off to do their own thing.  They feel “winging it” is better that any plan.  However, without a plan, it’s really difficult to measure your progress and that is not helpful to the workers and especially to the project’s stakeholders.

Modular plans move us towards our goal and in the process provide more knowledge (the purpose of measurements) which enables you and your team to make any necessary mid-course adjustments in the plans for next module(s).

Kaplan closes his essay by reminding us of what Robert Burns wrote:  “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”  We like to think that once we plan, we have complete control.  Not so!

As you work on plans for future work, stop and reflect on the possibility of doing your planning in a different way.

Make your week a great one!  .  .  .  .   jim



Eric Ries, The Lean Startup, Crown Business, 2011.