On the value of planning

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In retrospect, my post On the futility of planning captured a “you had to be there” moment. Out of context, the intended sarcasm falls (very) flat. In truth, I am a big (HUGE) believer in planning.
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As an Army officer I learned very quickly the value of planning and, possibly more importantly, the rehearsal of those plans. The aphorism “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” is absolutely true. Proper preparation, though, can make that fact largely irrelevant. The very act of planning, and rehearsing that plan, involves preparation that enables you to effectively react to most any situation that may arise. In other words, proper planning allows you to IMPROVISE.

“What?” you say. “Improvise? That’s fine for comedy and music, but military operations? Business? I don’t think so. The whole purpose of planning is so you know what is going to happen, and when it is going to happen. Not to just wing it.” In an Industrial Age setting, I may have agreed with that. But in the Information Age, I strongly disagree. If you tie yourself too tightly to a plan, and stick to it no matter what, I believe you are doomed to fail.

As an example, consider a football (American) team – or any other team sport, for that matter. It is possible to develop a detailed game plan that dictates every play you will use, and when you will use them in the game. You could make a simple list of plays: On the first play, do this; On the second play, do that. etc. Or you could have a more detailed plan: If it is second and under 5 yards, and we’re in the red zone, we do this. etc. You could even take it a step further and include separate options that take into account the opposition’s activities. Of course, the more contigencies you identify, the bigger the play book you have to carry around and the longer it may take to figure out exactly what to do.

What actually happens is that the team develops a basic game plan ahead of time and rehearses the execution of that plan. By doing this, the focus of the team becomes achieving the goal of winning the game (as opposed to simply executing the plan).

I was inspired to write this post partly by a few key passages in Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Blink (which I’ve written about recently), in which he uses the obvious example of an improv comedy troupe (which in turn cites as one of their references a basketball team) to support the concept of “thin-slicing,” the ability to parse a given situation into the minimum information required to deal with that situation. I have the feeling I’ll be writing quite a bit more that is inspired by the book. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to go out and get it.

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