Stick to the plan, no matter what

I love a good plan and I normally plan everything at work. It is only by an effort of will that I don’t plan what order to walk down the aisles in a supermarket. After all, too much planning can be the anti-thesis of spontaneity.

Most of my plans are pretty basic: “So I’ll do this first, then probably that, then I’ll find a way to solve that problem and then I’ll be able to do that”. When a detailed plan is needed then I’ll do a detailed plan. Overall it is a pretty simple process – I start with the big themes, then when I need to, I fill in a gap by adding all the detail I can think of.

But despite this simplicity there are two sets of behaviours I’ve noticed when it comes to plans that regularly surprise me.

The first is people just not planning at all. So often I see people go into something without any thought as to how they are going to do it. This does not necessarily mean that things go wrong, in fact things normally do work out, but it does mean that things don’t go as well as they could have done had there been a plan. To be more specific, I’d say that things don’t normally end up as complete as they would with a plan.

After thinking about this for years I think I understand the basic factors that lead to a lack of planning:

  • Not part of the toolbox. Some people are just exposed to planning as an activity and so just don’t know that it is something they can do. I bought my eldest child a book on mindmaps for children and showed her how to make them because she was interested. She now does them occasionally for her homework. I’ve never told her to do it but she knows it is in her toolbox and so gets it out when needed.
  • Can’t see the value in it. If you can do things alright without a plan, as normally happens then why bother. This is very difficult to get past. It is obvious to me how much more can be achieved with a plan and how much better the work is, but getting that across to some people takes time.
  • Frightened of it. As I said above, too much planning can reduce spontaneity, and some people worry about this to the extreme that any planning at all will block all spontaneity. I try to avoid people like this. Others are concerned that once a plan is in place it cannot be changed and so the flexibility they need will be compromised. I have an answer to this below.

The other set of behaviours revolve around making plans, but then doing really weird things with them:

  • Abandoning planning. I must admit that often my plans are vague enough to encompass most eventualities, but every now and then a plan goes wrong for me. When that happens I just redo the plan, changing whatever I need to change.Some people however just cannot do that and they respond by abandoning planning all together rather than redoing a plan. Maybe it is pride or maybe a dillusionment with the whole process, I don’t know.
  • Never changing plans. I’ve come across some people that will never change a plan no matter what happens. The building could be falling down around them but they will not change the plan. Now this is definitely down to pride and an odd conception of what a plan is. It is as if they feel themselves being judged not just on the result the plan is intended to achieve but also on their ability to plan the whole route beforehand. Yet to be honest, for most real world situations you would have to be psychic to do that. And so long as nothing is damaged on the way, who cares so long as the result is a success?

To me a plan is just a best guess at any point in time of the way to achieve the result. What matters is the result not the plan. So if the best guess changes then the plan should change too since all it does is describe that best guess. Having a plan that says one thing whilst doing something else is pointless.

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