And by CRAP, I do mean lousy, but I am also offering up an (hopefully handy) acronym which we will get to in more detail momentarily. But first, a message from our nature. Humans have a special capacity to think about the future while still being in the present moment. This is powerful and dangerous – especially when the present demands our full attention. This knowledge that the future exists is also very destabilizing and drives us to want to gain a (large) measure of control over what happens next. It is this anxiety that drives our enjoyment of literature and film – as soon as you stop caring about what happens next, you aren’t likely to keep paying attention (or at least you shouldn’t – life is too short, don’t waste another moment on something that doesn’t keep your interest … including this post).
This tendency towards trying to have some control over our future leads us to adopt planning. This leads us to a second problem – memory. As soon as we create a plan, we store it in our memory right alongside the memories of things that have already happened. This makes it difficult for us to discern the difference and that’s bad. Especially bad because memories of things that happened or the plan of what is yet to happen have a nasty habit of becoming confabulated – a nice word for corrupted. Corrupted by unexamined assumptions, hopes and beliefs.
So why is planning CRAP?
C is for constrained. Plans place constraints on the normal, healthy variation in any system. This generates feelings of false security and leaves us open to sudden and large scale shifts that we will not see coming.
R is for resistant. To modification in particular and emerging information in general. A plan is a memory and it can easily become infused with the certainty of something that has already happened. This may cause us to ignore or not even notice disconfirming evidence. It may also lead us to see the apparent lack of bad news for the plan is the same as nothing could be going wrong.
A is for absence. We assume that an absence of evidence that a plan is going awry is evidence of absence of any problems. This is seductive and false. There are too many known and unknown unknowns (never mind the unknown knowns – things we thing we know but we don’t!) for this to be possible.
P is for punishing. In so many ways and on so many levels. Plans generate expectations and when they are not met, it kicks the crap out of morale. Planning takes up an enormous amount of time and resources (and eventually shelf and hard drive space) that could be put to better use. Planning can give tunnel vision and prevent us from seeing windows and doors of opportunity opening around us or even being in a posture where we could act even if we noticed.
So how do we make planning less crappy? Well, the first step is to understand why we love it so much and why it is dangerous. I would encourage you to explore that in more detail than it has been introduced here. The second thing to consider is the notion of building plans for the future around a set of principles and a bearing or direction. We should avoid detailed prescription and instead set our sights on a point. It is like navigating to a destination in a boat. The design of the boat is the set of principles you use to operate and as conditions change and our direction of travel moves off of the line to our destination, we make small corrections. Know what rocks we need to stay away from to stay safe and be prepared to abandon the journey or pick a new destination when it becomes clear we must.
We cannot disconnect from our desire to plan – nor should we. We can improve the quality of the plan and avoid as much of the CRAP as possible.