Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. Dwight D. Eisenhower

I’ve always been intrigued about the differences between ‘plans’ and ‘planning’ and was taken by this quote from President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Talking to the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference in 1957 and talking about how when you are planning for an emergency it isn’t going to happen in the way you are planning, so you throw your plans out and start again.  But, critically, planning is vital, in Eisenhower’s own words “That is the reason it is so important to plan, to keep yourselves steeped in the character of the problem that you may one day be called upon to solve–or to help to solve.”  There’s a similar quote generally attributed to Winston Churchill (although I’ve not been able to find an actual source for it)   “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential”

Bird flocks and sunsetMany of the examples of these sort of quotes seem to come from a military background, along the lines that no plan will survive contact with reality.  But the examples I think also hold true for any project or activity.  Our plans will need to adapt to fit the circumstances and will, and must, change.  Whereas a plan is a document that outlines what you want to do, it is based on the state of your knowledge at a particular time, often before you have started the activity.  It might have some elements based on experience of doing the same thing before, or doing a similar thing before, so you are undertaking some repeatable activity and will have a greater degree of certainty about how to do X or how long Y will take to do.  But that often isn’t the case.  So it’s a starting point, your best guess about the activity.  And you could think about a project as a journey, with the project plan as your itinerary.  You might set out with a set of times for this train or that bus, but you might find your train being delayed or taking a different route and so your plan changes.

So you may start with your destination, and a worked out plan about how to get there.  But, and this is where planning is important, some ideas about contingencies or options or alternative routes in case things don’t quite work out how your plan said they should.  And this is the essence of why planning is important in that it’s about the process of thinking about what you are going to do in the activity.  You can think about the circumstances, the environment and the potential alternatives or contingencies in the event that something unexpected happens.

For me, I’m becoming more convinced that there’s a relationship around project length and complexity and a window/level at which you can realistically plan in terms of level of detail and how far in advance you can go.  At a high level you can plan where you want to get to, what you want to achieve and maybe how you measure whether you’ve achieved what you want to – so, you could characterise that as the destination.  But when it comes to the detail of anything that involves any level of complexity, newness or innovation, then the window of being able to plan a detailed project plan (the itinery) starts have a shorter and shorter window of certainty.  A high-level plan is valuable, but expect that the detail will change.  But then shorter time periods of planning seem to be more useful – becoming much more akin to the agile approach.

So when you’re looking at your planned activity and resource at the start of the project and then comparing it with the actual resource and activity then often you’ll find there’s a gap.  They didn’t pan out how you expected at the start, well, they probably wouldn’t and maybe shouldn’t.  Part way into the project you know much more than when you started, as Donald Rumsfeld put it “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones”

As you go through your project, those ‘unknown unknowns’ become known, even if at some stages and in some projects it’s akin to turning over stones to find more stones, and so on, but on your journey you build up a better picture and build better plans for the next cycle of activity.  (And if you really need to know the differences between Planned and Actuals you can use MS Project and can baseline your plan and then re-baseline it to track how the plan has changed over time).

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