Planning is a waste of time

:: Edit 2012-09-07 ::

I would love to know why this essay gets so many hits still. Any visitors care to comment?

:: end of edit ::

I have been asked to justify a remark I tweeted recently, and farbeit from me to refuse an excuse to blog, here goes:

I stated that "Planning is the worst waste of time ever invented". Some people think that this is a little unfair, but it may be worth stating that this comes from the mouth of a trained and experienced project-manager, who has worked in the highly regulated and highly documented world of clinical trials, who today works in the entirely unregulated though equally documented world of literary fiction.

In project management, Project Plans exist for one reason and one reason only: to convince those with the money to part with it, and fund the project.

In warfare, battle plans exist for one reason and one reason only: to dispose your troops on the field in such a way that they will cause as much difficulty to the enemy as possible. In modern warfare, there are no battle plans, since modern warfare has a much more civilized aim, namely to bring every confrontation to as swift a conclusion as possible.

Planning whose purpose is to decide what to do, and in what order, is strictly for novices - and a necessary part of the learning process.

(Even the logistics of the quantity surveyor are concerned with satisfying a consensus as to requirements, such that all parties submitting a tender will base their prices on the same set of materials; however when it comes to undertaking construction, the actual materials purchased and consumed will not be identical to the quantities specified by the QS.)

"Whenever a truly complex and difficult situation presents itself, the people with the money will always want quantification of the cost and the time needed to deal with it."

This is axiomatic in so many fields of endeavour today that a whole consultancy industry has grown up around the practice and principles of quantification before the fact. The promise of such quantification is to tell you exactly what is needed in terms of time and materials, and hence in terms of money, before you commit to beginning activity.

But any project is (as the etymology implies) an act of anticipation - of throwing yourself into the future. And it is akin to packing for a family holiday. Often akin to packing for a family holiday in the north of England.

You have a fixed, limited amount of space in the car, and you can be certain of some of your needs (like a change of underwear), but much, much less certain of your other needs, especially in terms of outer clothing. If every seat is occupied, is it even possible for everyone to bring everything he needs, let alone everything he might need.

Now most people, very sensibly, don't sit around a whiteboard brainstorming, before producing a twenty-page risk analysis, and a detailed list of items that each person is bringing ranked in order of priority-by-volume.

There are a number of reasons why they don't do this, but the primary reason is that it is not necessary. The fundamental reason for why it is not necessary is the same in every situation where risk is quantified and qualified, whether formally or otherwise:

The only future events likely to cause real difficulties are those that are impossible to anticipate.

By definition, you haven't thought of them in advance, and have done nothing to mitigate them. Any risks that you are capable of anticipating, you will already have acted to reduce. In real world project management, an "emergency fund" is set aside and ringfenced 'for the unexpected only'. These are the future events that test the success of any undertaking, and on which hang the success.

That is why a successful project depends much more on the experience of the people involved than on the thoroughness of the planning.

This doesn't - or shouldn't - turn preparation for future events into a dark art. If anything, it should turn it into an educational experience. Wherever possible, when mounting a project, the person with the main responsibility should look to involve people of varying levels of experience, so that all can learn both from eachother, and from any novel or unanticipated incidents or accidents that occur. As such, you continuously create people with the skills and experience necessary for future undertakings.

Well all have an extraordinary ability to create stories about future events, telling them to ourselves, in order to better prepare both for the expected and the unexpected. The storytelling urge that drives so many people to write fiction is a natural extension, sandbox and playground for this, our most important survival tool.

This is why when I do project mentoring (which I still do from time to time), I encourage all members of the project team to sit down somewhere comfortable, and tell eachother the story of the project as if they were telling a bedtime fairytale.


I really can turn almost anything into a discussion of storytelling.


Anonymous said...

cant speak for anyone else but i am looking for an opposing opinion to benjamin franklins qoute "fail to prepare and you prepare to fail"

Unknown said...

But preparation is not the same thing as planning. Preparation is about readiness, being able to take opportunities and react to events. Planning is about control; trying to ensure a certain future. One might say that being prepared is having what you need to achieve an objective, whereas planning is defining exactly how you will achieve the objective.

Unknown said...

Here's how I found this post (which I found quite illuminating and challenging - in a great way):

1. I was facing yet another planning phase for a small website.

2. Since I hate planning small websites (because it feels like >50% of the time spent is spent planning), and all I build is small websites, I am always looking for a better way to work.

3. I got frustrated and typed "planning is a waste of time" as an exercise.

4. I found your post.

Thanks for provoking many thoughts!

Unknown said...

Hi Damian, thanks for your remarks - loved the violin solos, BTW.

I do a couple of websites a year, for small businesses. I spend most of the preparation time talking to the customer and doing sketches, but I don't make any plans.