Planning may not apply

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Planning works in well understood fields that are well modeled. Consequences can be predicted and planned for. Even very complex tasks like constructing train tracks or building cars can be planned.

BUT. When you’re dealing with people, however, or the weather or global economies or other systems that are extremely complex, poorly modeled, ever-changing and impossible to predict, planning in the traditional sense is impossible and even can actually be destructive. People plan anyway – and they’re wrong, and management gets mad

The reason we plan is so that things go smoothly, details aren’t forgotten and difficulties are anticipated. It’s a good thing. When dealing with an inherently unpredictable, wicked problem, however, we do not and cannot predict what will happen. We need to acknowledge his and act in a way that will maximize the outcome while recognizing that each moment of the process may present surprises.

So our workcycle has changed. Collapsed really. We no longer plan, execute, measure, review and plan again. We inch forward doing all of those things simultaneously.

That means that at every step we have decisions to make. The world will change. Our success depends on our ability to detect, understand and respond positively to the change.

So how do we make good decisions? By understanding our goals, our vision of the outcome we’re pursuing. The more well articulated and examined our goals, the more well imagined our vision, the more effectively we can gauge progress, and the sharper the criteria we have for decision making.

Fortunately new media gives us a better way to formulate and evaluate vision and goals with our teams. It also provides us remarkable new tools to detect and to understand changes in our environment – enabling a hyper-sensory, hyper-vigilant walk toward the goal. Networking enables us to have  ambient, real-time insight into the world around us and to engage, inquire and explore that world through unprecedented access to the worlds experts and collective intelligence. We have a man in every corner of the earth. It’s a lot easier to find a needle in a haystack if the hay is helping you look. (who said this?)

This means that we can accomplish feats of great complexity over a significant timeframe – but we’re doing it in tiny chunks – basically planning only the shrinking amount of time that we can reasonably predict. And this works because we’re doing it in small chunks so that we can learn re-work, re-imagine and re-cover almost constantly. this is the process that “fail fast” ultimately is meant to support.

In some ways, the Unites States government was established in this very mold. The founding fathers articulated a clear vision. They created the role of president to lead the country in the work of achieving those goals. They created the congress as a way to detect and learn from the people, and the judiciary to constantly debate and refine the vision and to  help us understand our progress. Last they created elections to ensure that the people, who’s welfare is the governments ultimate goal can contribute and control their destinies.

So – given that the United States government has been imperfectly, but (by many measures) constantly improving (on the whole – think of things like civil rights – no, not perfect, but way better than in 1776, no?), perhaps it is not a bad model on which to model enterprise organization. We know that the despotic model is failing, and that organizations that embrace the “of, by, and even “for” their people are starting to succeed. Just a thought. Should we be looking to democratic institutions for what we can learn about the next way of organizing?

Can we ever (did we ever?) build cars or railways this way?



  1. I like this post…and what you recommend in the way of planning a chunk at a time…it kind of reminds me of the agile way of working

    One thing Dave Snowden says is the best we can do is “replicate starting conditions”

    …not replicating the context, what for, just things that seemed to be beneficial and then intervene and adapt as it happens

    …and like you say “fail fast”

  2. One can still plan even in chaos. Goals and objectives replace respectively specifications and deliverables. To effectively produce in chaos requires a highly decentralized command structure, autonomous workers and a highly collaborative work environment. Team members must be highly competent, trusting of each other, and self starters.
    When it works, the results are amazing.

    1. @jason the question is how far do you plan?

      In the Cynefin Framework when there is chaos (no relationships between cause and effect) you Act-Sense-Respond

      This post pays more attention to the chaotic domain

      Dave says:

      “Chaos is randomness, agents operating without constraint. Principle based interventions (more commonly known as heuristics) are one of the main strategies for handling complexity as opposed to rules”

    2. @jason here’s an example of a chaotic situation

      “Chaotic – where no manageable patterns exist, “the realm of unknowables” –e.g., September 11, 2001. In this case, the best response is to do something and assess what happens.”

      And here

      “In a Chaotic system, the relationship between X and Y, if there is one, will be very difficult or impossible to determine. If I do X, there’s no guarantee what I’ll get, and I certainly can’t be certain that I’ll acheive Y, and even if I do achieve Y, it may have nothing at all to do with having done X. A good example of a Chaotic system is a burning house. There are so many processes happening so fast and in no discernable order, and the situation is evolving so rapidly and unpredictably, that it’s nearly impossible to actually map what is happening, either during the process, or even with the benefit of hindsight. The molecular and physical interactions taking place between heat, fuel and oxygen can, on a broad level, be understood, but how the intake of air through a particular cracked window, or the failure of a particular wooden support-beam, or the intensity of heat caused in one specifc portion of the ceiling, all work together to cause the house to collapse, will probably never be understood in detail. I can do X, but whether I get Y or something else entirely will be determined by a range of factors that are most likely entirely out of my control, and may never be fully analysed.”

      BTW – this last link is an awesome read

  3. you make an excellent point – this type of progress is only available if you have a collectively open mind, and crystal clear vision for where you want to go – that can evolve as well.

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