Planning is bad for you, isn’t it?

2011 January 17
tags:
by mark

Planning is a bad thing, or so I hear. I’ve been reading a book called “Rework” by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the two founders of the software company 37 Signals. Their company designed Ruby on Rails, Basecamp, and some other highly-regarded software. I like the book because half of the ideas are great (the ones I agree with), but many of the others seem strange to me, particularly for someone who has built a business around the idea that planning is useful and necessary.

The idea that I find to be particularly challenging is that (I paraphrase) a plan is a decision made at a very bad time- early on before any data is collected, and that planning precludes flexibility and good judgment. The authors’ conclusion seems to be that when you create a plan, instead of developing a roadmap with guidelines, you’ve established dogma, and this dogma will make you oblivious to opportunities that aren’t on your plan.

37 Signals did a very smart thing: they realized the commercial value of some simple project management tools they created for internal use in the process of developing some custom software for clients. What they didn’t say was whether they had functioning business planning processes when they came up with the bright and very good idea to see if anyone would buy into software as a service for their basic, simple PM tools- something that has found them a lot of happy customers.

One would be led to assume by their book that 37 Signals did not (and do not) have functioning business planning, because if they had, they would have ignored the possibilities of selling project management tools software as a service. Per their argument, the locked-in dogma of their plan would have precluded them from seeing, or at least acting on this opportunity.

The obvious fact to anyone who has been through a planning process is that making a plan does not lock you in to anything other than… making a plan. The whole process is: plan / check / adjust. If you set a plan, you have created something that, if achieved, will mean that you are successful, or at least will put you on that road. The check process is to see if you’re on plan, so that if you aren’t, you can do something overt- adjust- to put you back on the path to a successful destination, which could be the one you aimed at earlier, or a more attainable one, or a better one.

I think the reason that we need to make plans is that as humans we are inclined to go about most tasks as though they resemble cleaning the garage. The garage needs to get clean- at some time in the future, but we’re not clear when, and it’s full of interesting shiny objects that can provide us with hours of hard work that take us away from what we were trying to do in the first place: be able to put the car in the garage. So we start with good intentions and energy, but often lose track of the goal. We spend a lot of time on “stuff” that seems valuable, but may not achieve any useful progress toward what we realized was important in the first place.

If you make a plan, you need the “check” and “adjust” components to go along with it. Otherwise it becomes the obligatory once a year waste of time an energy. I have never in my professional life seen a plan managed by intelligent adults that precluded common sense. So make a plan, see if you’re on plan every once in a while, and use your head and make good decisions about things that have happened that you didn’t and couldn’t have seen when you made the plan in the first place. This is a good and critical part of what is called “management”.

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