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Monday, September 19, 2011

Is Planning the Enemy of Action?

I have often wondered if the time we take planning leads to more successful outcomes.  Is just trying something and learning by trail and error a more successful way to develop something new or improved?  We can all think about times when a committee was appointed to accomplish a task, committee meetings were held, a report was made and then nothing happened.  How many strategic plans ever get implemented?  The extended time that the planning effort can take many times makes the group’s efforts irrelevant.  I recently read an article by David Brooks in the NY Times that discussed just such an example of this.

“When the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman was a young man, he led a committee to write a new part of the curriculum for Israeli high schools. The committee worked for a year, and Kahneman asked his colleagues how long they thought the rest of the project would take. Their estimates were around two years. Kahneman then asked the most experienced among them how long such work took other curriculum committees. The gentleman pointed out that roughly 40 percent of the committees never finished their work at all. But what about those that did finish? The gentleman reported that he had never seen a committee finish in less than seven years and never in more than 10. This was bad news. They might fail to finish a task that they thought would be done in three years. At best, the project might consume eight or nine years. Yet this information didn’t affect those on the team at all. They carried on, assuming that though others might fail or dally, surely they wouldn’t. As it turned out, their project took eight years to finish. By the time it was done, the Ministry of Education had lost interest, and the curriculum was never used.”

Often the planning process produces the wrong answers because of wrong assumptions of cause and effect.  As a fan of the Freakonomics books I find it fascinating to see how our common assumptions came be so wrong.  An example of the wrong assumptions is how assumptions are connected.  If “A” is true of “B” and “B” is true of “C” then is “A” the cause of “C”?  Often it is not.  An example of this is in the current Republican candidate debates.  A) Rick Perry is Governor of Texas.  B) Texas has the highest number of new jobs of any state C) Rick Perry is the reason Texas has the highest rate of new jobs.  But does the fact that Texas has a big oil economy and oil has been booming as a business the past few years have more to do with the job growth in Texas?  As much as Rick Perry or any other elected official would like to admit they really have very little to do with economy.  The things that government can do like tax cuts and tax raises have little impact on economic growth.  You can find examples of a booming economy in a time of higher taxes and a time of recession in a time of lower taxes.

So am I saying that planning is a waste of time that only produces the wrong solutions? Not exactly.  What I would propose is that planning be clearly focused on a measurable outcome tied directly to what you hope to accomplish, how you will accomplish it, who will be responsible for the tasks proposed and when will each task be accomplished.  After that there is a recognition that no planning effort is worth anything if it does get implemented, tested and modified as necessary.

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