Wednesday, March 29, 2020

Slow Planning (Part 2)

Planning is one of the commonest management tasks. Yet conventional approaches typically fail to match expectations and encourage dangerous inflexibility. Slow Planning offers an attractive alternative. This is Part 2 of a two-part explanation.
I’ll begin with a reminder of the steps involved in 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.
The first step is quiet, careful and open-minded observation. Instead of issuing fixed commands to an unknowable future, then trying to force compliance by willpower and determination, the Slow Planner watches, waits and allows events and trends time to reveal themselves.

Setting A Course
Once the conventional, planner has set a course, she sets up measurements to chart progress and trigger remedial actions. The typical metaphor is the pilot of a ship, checking position and making course corrections to cope with currents, tides and weather. Sadly, the future isn’t much like the ocean. Ocean currents are stable. There are charts to follow, GPS and radar. And if the weather is unpredictable, there are still forecasters to give you some warning. The future is a mass of possibilities, uncertainties and changing probabilities. Imagine the ocean currents constantly shifting unpredictably. What if the seabed rose or fell without warning and shoals moved? What if reefs had only estimated positions; or the port you are aiming for might have moved somewhere else when you reach its last known position? Imagine navigating without reliable charts, since those you have only reflect conditions as they were some time in the past. That’s closer to the reality of planning based on forecasting the future.

The Probable Future

Probabilities confuse people. Take a look at any group of gamblers. The laws of probability are well-known and will always settle the outcome of their bets; yet gamblers persist in believing they can beat the odds, however many times they lose. People want certainties. They want their lives to be predictable and stable; they want to believe in a future they can trust. Executives are no different. Like everyone else, they’re more likely to ignore uncomfortable realities than grapple with them.

Events always seem so predictable in hindsight, when all the probabilities have been collapsed into a single, known outcome. Yet the people involved at the time nearly always failed to see what’s coming. Why" Because, until it happened, their future was a mass of probabilities, uncertainties and contingencies of varying likelihood. Life is always contingent. We just don’t know what it’s contingent on, most of the time.

Slow Planning tries to deal only with realities, however unwelcome or unexpected. It doesn’t assume events will turn out as planned. It doesn't direct attention solely towards the expected or wanted result. The Slow Planner works carefully to open her mind to wider and wider possibilities, exploring differing potential outcomes and seeking out emerging trends. This takes time and effort, but not nearly as much as trying desperately to force one’s will on events spinning further out of control. Planning for how you want the future to be, then trying to make it fit your plan, is far riskier and harder than watching carefully to see how the future is turning out, then responding as best you can. For the conventional planner, future actions must conform to a plan laid down well in the past and based on the information available then. Changes must be limited to what the predetermined measurements allow, or the plan becomes unworkable. The only alternative is to abandon the plan and start again.

Defying Reality
Managers often have much of their personal credibility invested in the plan, so it’s not surprising work often continues in defiance of reality, only to be finally abandoned when the inconsistencies become too great to paper over. You need only spend a short time inside most large organizations—and many smaller ones as well—to see how often projects are abandoned only after lengthy, wasteful and pigheaded efforts to deny a reality anyone unbiased could see long before.

For people addicted to imaginary certainties, Slow Planning is no planning at all. There are no grand, carefully crafted strategic plans; no long-term policies or procedures; no commitment to fixed budgets or objectives; no big, hairy, audacious goals. Only a quiet, patient effort to see what is emerging as the way of the future and craft a suitable response.

In conventional planning, you must choose actions long before of events. It’s assumed the planned actions, if performed fully and with determination, will produce the wanted result, whatever the circumstances at the time. In Slow Planning, decisions on action are left as late as possible in the process, then carried out immediately. When an understanding of events emerges, action should always be swift, purposeful and direct. Because of this, Slow Planning is inherently more flexible and responsive than the conventional kind. No one’s ego is invested in steps chosen long ago, when things maybe looked quite different. There’s no existing set of commitments to be set aside; no clinging to past decisions; no time wasted trying to jury-rig a failing plan to cope with events far outside its original boundaries.

A Better Way
Over many decades, and despite enormous effort, conventional planning has failed to deliver its promise of clear, predictable outcomes. The current wars against terrorism and in Iraq have once again proved the fallibility of some of the most sophisticated planning processes available.

Slow Planning is an alternative that moves action decisions closer to the events that must be handled. It substitutes time spent on trying to force events to fit the plan with time spent gaining an understanding of emerging reality. And it discards carefully composed images of how things ought to be in favor of accepting the way they are and basing actions on that.

It won’t appeal to those who cling to a belief the future can be made predictable. It won't please those who want to keep their delusion of being in control, even when it’s clear they aren’t even in control of their own reactions. It will appeal to leaders prepared to accept their job is less about predicting the future than responding effectively to whatever happens, when it arrives.

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Matt said...


I really enjoy your posts.

This isn't so much a comment meant for posting. Just thought you might want to be made aware of a typo...

>> In Slow Planning, decisions on action are laft as late as possible in the process


9:10 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Matt.

8:45 PM  
Anonymous said...

Not a bad read.

9:08 PM  

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