Planning. What is its value?


June 27th, 2010

Sometimes I like to plan.

Ah, ha! I hear some of you say, regular readers who know my thoughts about planning: “I always knew she was a closet planner!”

I like to plan how I will drive across Melbourne. I like to plan when I will have an annual holiday (because if I don’t block those dates out of my diary, it’ll never happen). I like to plan what I will cook for guests when they come over. I like to plan what flights I will take to avoid killer connections (either too short or too long). I like to plan meeting friends for coffee or dinner. And I like to plan weekends away. It appears that most of my planning is really scheduling. Is that what planning is then?

I was once asked in a job interview, oh maybe 20 years ago, if I had a five-year plan. The answer was no. I wondered if I ought to have a five-year plan. Did everyone else have one? I didn’t know. I got the job. I never did get a five-year plan.

As I was leaving a meeting recently someone asked me for my advice on strategic planning. Hmmm…

Strategic planning is one of those activities that organisations are expected to do. I suspect many people, deep down, know that it’s a waste of time. Yet we cling to it, fearing to try anything else. Or we do it because it’s always been done.

I do think there is a place for planning in organisations – allocating resources and people to activities (and then letting them get on with it – I am certainly not a fan of milestones, and performance indicators etc) – a bit like my own scheduling.

This seems to be the main purpose of planning – to allocate resources: people and time and money to certain activities over others. And to justify grants and budgets, especially for NFPs, with the added burden of identifying outcomes in advance. All of this seems to stem from an era when predictability was the norm. Surely everyone has noticed by now that un-predicatability is the new norm? Operating in complex environments means we have to try multiple small actions to see what works, because the very nature of complexity is unpredictability.

And what about predicting the future? Three, five, ten, twenty years from now – especially now when the world seems to be speeding up? It seems to me that things change too quickly for any sort of strategic plan to be meaningful. So what to do? Is it time to drop the notion of strategic planning completely? Or at the very least have a strategic plan on a whiteboard or on a wiki where it’s easy to change and adapt as needed. I guess there’s some value in knowing which direction you’re heading – I’m just not so sure there’s much value in scheduling all the stops along the way. What happens when an exciting, unplanned opportunity emerges?

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