Monday, March 27, 2020

Slow Planning (Part 1)

Planning is one of the commonest management roles. Yet conventional approaches typically fail to match expectations and encourage an attitude of dangerous inflexibility. Slow Planning offers a more rational alternative. Here is Part 1 of a two-part explanation.

Given the many hours devoted to planning and budgeting, the payoff seems meager at best. Most plans quickly part company with reality; many fail in several major respects; some prove disastrous. Yet organizations typically remain devoted to planning—a process that they know is badly flawed—maybe because they assume the alternative is anarchic chaos. This isn’t true, as I will show. Slow Planning provides a simpler and more robust alternative; and one less prone to encouraging stubborn, rigid responses when conditions change—as they nearly always do.

Conventional planning requires these assumptions:
  1. You can predict the future in fairly close detail, maybe several years ahead.
  2. It’s possible to impose your will on events, and therefore outcomes too, by sustained and disciplined action.
  3. Closely following a pre-defined set of actions is the best way to produce the result you want.
  4. You can deal with the unexpected by setting up measurements in advance to chart progress and trigger action to reassert control.
All of these assumptions are false.

The future is impervious to human willpower. You can will tomorrow to be wet or fine, but nothing will change as a result. You can set a direction, form a plan, or set up hopes for the future; but unless you believe in magic, none of these will cause the universe to change course.

The very short-term future often behaves much as the immediate past, which is why short-term plans and forecasts work so much better than longer-term ones. Indeed, for many organizations today, long-term is taken to mean any plan that extends more than 12 months ahead. But changing terminology merely tricks the mind into seeing success where none exists. Economists, politicians and experts of every kind rebuke American industry for endemic “short-termism.” None notice that conventional planning almost demands such short-term thinking, if it is to produce any success at all. Long-term planning is little better then blind guesswork or hopeful prophesy.

If willing the future to be as you wish encourages doomed efforts to control the uncontrollable, believing you can control it at all is irrational. By what means can you force the future to fit into your preconceived plans? By determination? That’s simply more willpower, and no amount of willpower can change anything outside your direct control. By policies and procedures? Setting fixed policies in advance is an excellent way to institutionalize rigidity at all levels. By commanding it shall be so? Egotism may be rampant among executives, but mercifully few believe the universe will respond to their direct commands.

Relying on preset measurements assumes, of course, that you know in advance what the most important factors will be in deciding the success of your plan. The saying “what can’t be measured can’t be managed” has this much truth: most of the key events that will affect your plan cannot be anticipated fully enough to be measured or managed at all. No one will see them until they happen. Leadership is more about reacting to the unexpected in rational ways than sitting in the calm of an office producing advanced plans that can be carried out more or less as intended.

When their plan begins to unravel—as nearly all will—leaders typically resort to stronger and stronger efforts to regain control. They work harder; drive everyone to spend longer hours at work; bully subordinates; lay-off “inadequate” performers; loudly demand results, adding threats or incentives, depending on their character; change advertising agents, suppliers, consultants; restructure the whole organization (again). Most management techniques exist to re-impose control on events already slipping away from the anticipated path. That’s why so many of these nostrums quickly fall out of fashion. They're doomed to produce continual disappointment.

What few, if any, managers do is quietly watch and try to understand.

Obsessed with regaining the control they never had, they rush instead into actions based on simplistic rules of thumb and the managerial equivalent of folk-wisdom. They’re so busy trying to force the universe back into line, they have no time to consider what these unexpected events might mean. Perhaps a fashion is ending. Or consumer sentiment is shifting towards a new direction. Maybe the organization’s basic assumptions no longer work, its technology is inadequate, or its strategic direction is flawed. Maybe new products are penetrating the market faster than anyone expected. Until leaders can grasp what’s going on, any reaction is premature.

Patience is rarely counted as a leadership virtue, which is a bad mistake. Events often take their own time to become clear, and the person who jumps without knowing where he or she is heading is guilty of culpable rashness.

These are the steps of Slow Planning:
  1. Patiently develop understanding.
    1. Watch, reflect, consult and explore.
    2. Open your mind to many alternatives besides the obvious.
    3. Wait for recognizable patterns to emerge.
  2. Review as many possibilities as you can.
    1. Stay open to the unexpected.
    2. Avoid becoming committed prematurely.
    3. Challenge all assumptions and previous thinking.
    4. Watch for a preferred response to emerge from the best available thinking.
  3. Take swift, direct action.
    1. Keep decisions as close to events as possible.
    2. Act swiftly and decisively once you've chosen a course of action.
    3. Let go of failing actions quickly. Never waste your time trying to rescue something that is past help.
    4. Stay flexible, get as much feedback as possible and use the results to improve future understanding.
This is the approach all the most successful leaders have used instinctively. They watch, consider and wait patiently until an opportunity presents itself; then act with breathtaking speed and decisiveness. This was how Robert E. Lee confounded often numerically superior Union forces; how Napoleon became the terror of Europe; and how Erwin Rommel threw the British army in North Africa into panic.

In the next posting, I’ll look at each of these Slow Planning steps in greater detail.

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