Long-term planning in an age of rapid, unpredictable change is impossible. Stop doing it and suddenly people feel less anxious and can focus on the challenge directly in front of them.
So why do we all continue with this fool’s errand?
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated and expanded with the latest research and information.
The greatest flaw in life is that it is always imperfect, and that a certain part of it is postponed.
— Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On the Futility of Planning Ahead
I have never developed a business plan. I have never created a sales forecast, a competitive analysis, a marketing analysis, or a product development schedule. It’s not that I don’t know how to do these things; it’s just that they seem to me to be superfluous to the process of building a product and making money from it.
— John McAfee, founder of McAfee, Inc., from The Richest Man in Town: The Twelve Commandments of Wealth
Human beings aren’t very good at planning.
A number of mental quirks in our evolutionary psychology prevents us from predicting the future with any kind of accuracy.
The planning fallacy makes it difficult to engage in long-term planning because we view individual projects in a myopic fashion and don’t take into account unforeseen delays.
The Ellsberg Paradox keeps us timid, conservative, and unable to see the upside in risky situations.
Most of our long-term planning tends to be laughably wrong in retrospect, especially when it comes to life plans.
It takes a degree of humility to admit that we’re bad at long-term planning. But in order to be effective, lifestyle design must start from a position of truth. Truth about ourselves, our lives, and our careers.
The truth is, our brains are mush when it comes to long-term planning. Acknowledging this fact isn’t admitting defeat, it’s recognizing the problem.
What a Long-Term Plan Tries (and Fails) to Accomplish
Long-term planning is an exercise designed to assess, estimate, and provide for future needs. It almost always begins with a thorough assessment of present circumstances and an extrapolation into future ones.
It differs from goal planning in that long-term planning is seeking to look further ahead than most short-term goals. Long-term plans are about predicting the future.
Long-term planning is distinct from strategy or vision for precisely this reason. Long-term plans, whether in business, or in your career, or in your personal life invariably requires you to know way more about the future than you can possibly know.
The problem is that the future is damn near impossible to plan for, and certainly not with the precision that a room full of overpaid MBAs claim. Trends, even the mega- variety, don’t give two hoots about your plans for them.
Long-term planning is a flawed strategy
Instead of long-term planning, we can embrace experimentation. Emergent strategy is better adapted to the requirements for 21st century success.
Fast Company discussed management theorist Henry Mintzberg and his distinction between deliberate and emergent strategy:
Deliberate strategy relies on senior leaders to set goals and develop plans and strategies to achieve them.
Emergent strategy is a strategy that emerges from all over the company, over time, as the environment changes and the organization shifts and adapts to apply its strengths to a changing reality. Emergent strategy is an organic approach to growth that lets companies learn and continually develop new strategies over time based on an ongoing culture of hypothesis and experimentation.
Deliberate strategy is the foundation of 20th century management. As employees, we’ve been conditioned to look up to our managers, department heads, and CEOs for direction.
This persistent deferral of autonomy has, over time, created a generation of people who can’t think for themselves, can’t come up with creative solutions, and can’t act quickly in the face of change.
Long-term planning is a crutch. It’s something MBAs whip out at meetings to demonstrate their value and pretend they have any idea what’s going to happen 5 years from now.
Here’s a clue:
No one does.
Emergent strategy is the winning paradigm of this new, agile century. The world is changing too quickly for our generation to stand around waiting for someone with “authority” to issue commands. If the 2008 financial crisis demonstrated anything, it’s that those in positions of power often know the least about what’s happening.
Agility is the defining quality of the 21st century for this reason. As business author Michael Port writes in Beyond Booked Solid:
One of the things that keep people from getting on with their projects is that they think they need to know everything before they start, instead of learning in action. As Eric Hoffer, an American philosopher, says, “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”
The future belongs to the learner, not the learned.
The need to know everything before you start leads to decision paralysis, not action.
Leading a fulfilling, meaningful life will depend on how willing we are to learn on the fly, embrace the new, and course correct on the basis of new information.
Success is unpredictable, so run many experiments
The reason is that the rules of the game—whether you’re an artist or a scientist or a startup—are not locked. They can change. And because they can change, we start to have difficulty predicting what’s going to work.
That means that whenever I lay out a plan, whenever I analyze how to become successful, when I sort of draw up a strategy, I am very likely to be wrong. And that means that if I reach success, it’s not because of what the plan said, it’s because of something unexpected.
Whether he would put it this way or not, Johansson is echoing the lessons of agile development. Because the world we are living in is changing so rapidly, responsiveness to change becomes more important than sticking to the plan.
However, responsiveness is helpful but not enough. No one wants to be purely reactive. The key is to create an initial plan that you can iterate over time. As Johansson says in his book The Click Moment:
Some of us need a plan that makes sense, some of us need a plan that emotionally grips us, others need a plan that speaks to their personal goals in life, and most of us need a plan to coordinate activities and keep our schedule straight. The reason behind the plan is not especially important because you will be wrong anyway. What you need to make the case to act, is fair game.
Later on in Johansson’s Fast Company interview (and it’s worth reading in its entirety), the interviewer hits on the critical takeaway from the realization that long-term planning and success don’t necessarily go together:
If we could predict what would work, we would never ever do anything that doesn’t work. If success is random, it follows that you need to roll the dice frequently.
The agile approach is to fail fast, fail frequently, and fail cheaply. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to know what will be successful before we begin. Taking an experimental approach to life yields the maximum opportunities for success.
Have your finger in many pies. Don’t shy away from discovering a second stream of income, even if your work technically doesn’t allow it. Be willing to experiment, and fail, and start over again.
Whatever You Need to Make the Case to Act
The agile lifestyle accepts that we’re pretty bad at planning.
Agile’s roots in software development points to the reason why.
Trying to make accurate long-term plans about projects that cost millions of dollars, take many months to complete, and require coordination among hundreds of people proved to be a fool’s errand.
Agile practitioners developed a better set of tools that emphasized starting real work first and making adjustments as you go along. The agile revolution has fundamentally shifted the way we do business. Now agile thinking can be used to transform our personal lives.
Agile methods, despite its reputation, does use planning.
But agilists are in a mode of “continuous planning” that updates, adjusts, and iterates as things move along. This is the opposite of long-term planning, which requires top-down soothsaying at the outset of every project.
Planning and adapting as you go is not comfortable. And it’s not easy. But it’s more realistic and more effective than pretending we can predict the future.
A version of this article first appeared on September 21, 2012.
Image by kevin dooley.