Five Ways ‘Planning Before Doing’ can be Bad

Before you do something, plan it.  Figure out what you are going to do, and then do it.  If you failed to succeed, then you didn’t plan well enough.  Next time, do better planning.  How many times have you heard these saying from traditional scientific management?  They are so ingrained in our working behaviors, they seem beyond questioning.  But there are some times when planning is a bad idea — and this point talks about 5 such situations.

plannerPlanning takes many forms, and when I talk about a plan, I mean any kind of way that you make a definition of what you or others are going to do in the future.  The plan has to be persistent, usually written, but you can also share a memorized plan if it is not too complicated.  Some plans are a detailed list of instructions.  Others might be a flow chart describing various options, and what one must do if certain possibilities materialize.  A plan is not simply a command to do something, but it is a description of what to do that is worked out in advance.  That is the key:  a plan is created at one time, but the actual action is done later.

Planning helps to coordinate the actions of people, and it is particularly important when those people can not be constantly communicating.  If you want to meet someone at a coffee shop, you have to make a plan, otherwise you are unlikely to meet.  You want to build a skyscraper?  You need a very large elaborate plan for that or else the resulting building might be poorly built.  But there are some situations where a plan is a bad idea.

  • Volatility can make a plan worthless – All of the example where a plan helps is when the patterns of behavior can be accurately predicted and are repeatable enough.  Imagine tomorrows stock market prices.  To make a detailed plan today, about what you are going to trade, and when you are going to trade it tomorrow, is pointless.  It is easy to see how stock prices are chaotic enough on a day by day, but the same principle applies to many other things if the time scale is increased.  Planning a lunch reservation for 6 months from now would have to be a very special occasion and still would be highly tentative at best.  The famous Franco-Prussian War general Helmut von Moltke said “no plan survives contact with the enemy” which reflects this sentiment perfectly given the volatility of a war situation.
  • A plan can be more trouble than the benefit – Imagine ten carloads of people attending an ordinary evening event.  Nobody would bother making a plan for the exact places that each car will park, because there is no substantial benefit in making this plan.  Planning is never free; it always takes at least some time and effort.  If the benefit of the plan is not greater than the cost of planning, then the planning itself is a waste, and should be avoided.
  • Following the plan may be a distraction – There are some situations where creating a plan is a helpful exercise, but taking the plan literally is harmful.  Creating a plan can force a team to think though all the possible things that might happen, and to think about how one might respond.  As an exercise in preparedness this can be a benefit, but it is important for the team to remember that the specific plan may contain details that are not justified and do not properly account for how the reality has unfolded.  The team needs to know to ignore those details in the plan.  This is the idea behind General Eisenhower’s statement that “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
  • A plan can give false confidence – Just because someone threw together a plan does not mean that it is a good plan.  Without a plan, people will be searching for possibilities.  Those same people may stop looking for solutions if they have been convinced that a good planning job has already been done.
  • A plan made too early can lead you down the wrong path – A plan that is made too early might be made on misunderstood conditions.  This naïve plan is actually harmful because it locks the team to a particular direction, at a time when the reality of the value of direction is unclear.  Later, when the actual situation has cleared, it may be impossible to change to the better direction.  This is the result of some serious research by Danish economic geographer Bent Flyvbjerg.  He studied hundreds of public works projects, and found that those projects that waited longer before making a plan, tended to do better.  He says: “Often there is ‘lock in’ or ‘capture’ of a certain project concept at an early stage, leaving analysis of alternatives weak or absent [from the plan].

The conclusion from all this is that plans can be costly, so make sure you are getting an appropriate amount of benefit.  In some cases, you are actually better off not making any plan, and simply figuring it out as you go.  In cases where a plan does make sense, there can be a right time to make a plan.  A plan made too late might not have enough effect on the work already in progress, but alternately a plan made too early can be flawed so as to prevent you from finding the right route.  A Late-Structured Process is a strong aspect of case management where the case manager is allowed to plan after the work is started.

So don’t think that a full and complete plan is the obvious and indisputable requirement for success in all projects.   Doing more planning does not necessarily make the project better.  This is not to say that one should never plan.  A majority of cases need a plan, but a simple plan may be more effective than an elaborate one.  The amount of planning should be appropriate to the need.   There is a right time.  Delaying planning to a time where you know more about the specifics may be a good idea, may give you a better plan, which may allow you to outperform those who plan too much & too early.


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