“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
I want to let you in on a secret: planners and strategists are always planning effectively and developing strategies. We make plans and strategies knowing full well that we’ll need to change those plans and strategies when we implement them.
There’s the familiar maxim “no plan survives first contact” that military planners live by because unless your enemies are potted plants, they will force you to change your plans to account for them. That’s obvious in warfare precisely because warfare is a contest of wills, but it’s also true for making plans and strategies in general.
It so turns out that the forces we’re all working with and against aren’t potted plants, either. Our coworkers and teammates can do unexpected things to enhance or detract from our momentum. Customers frequently surprise us by their actions. The marketplace takes an unexpected turn. Loved ones get sick, die, or otherwise divert attention.
About the only thing you can do to account for the unexpected is to expect that there will be unexpected conditions. This is why we work at 85% capacity with 100% focus – 85% capacity allows room for the unexpected, and 100% focus ensures that we get a project done as quickly as possible.
I want to pause here and flesh out that last idea rather than pass by it so quickly.
The Longer You’re Working on a Project, the More Volatile It Will Be
While it’s absolutely true that as many good unexpected things as bad unexpected things could occur, it’s been my experience that most of the really good things happen after you finish the project. That’s when you can get the feedback that matters, good or bad. That’s when you can get the distance from the doing of the project to evaluate its merits and determine the next steps for it. That’s when you’re also able to celebrate that you got something done.
Yes, it’s true that we creatives are never really finished with our work because one completed project starts two or three more, so we walk in the crux of the paradox that we must finish the small project we’re working on, knowing that we’ll never finish the big project we’re working on, whether or not we see that our work is part of a bigger project. (You can read more about this whole process and how to celebrate these small project wins in Chapter 9 of Start Finishing.) After all, everything we do can be pulled into our body of work. As I’ve mentioned before, success in Project World depends on continually finishing the stuff that matters.
It should be clear, then, that I’m not at all discounting the role serendipity plays in our creative process – I’m saying that shipping projects sooner actually magnifies the positive effects of serendipity because more people interacting with your work exponentially increases the chances that the positive surprises will surface, whereas keeping your work bottled up depends solely on your stumbling on those positive surprises.
So, let’s look at it this way: the longer you’re working on something (by yourself, where “yourself” could also be your isolated team), the more you’re likely to have something throw a monkey wrench in your plans. As soon as you finish whatever you’re working on and ship it, the more you’re likely to have (positive) serendipity change what you thought would happen, AND completing that one project will create more projects anyway. In either case, your plans and strategies will change.
That’s why planners and strategists are always planning and strategizing. Of course, they can also get stuck in not-doing because they love making plans and strategies more than they like doing the work to implement those plans or being wrong about their assumptions, but that’s a post for another day. (Serial planners and strategists, I see you. Is it time to get out of your head and into the world?)
Why Bother Planning Effectively If Plans Will Just Change?
The fact that any given plan has a very short shelf-life is also why many people don’t make plans and strategies. I’ve heard it time and time again: why bother with all the work when you’ll change it the next day? (Subtext: planning done right upsets creative people.)
That’s a valid question.
Planning (done right) is an awareness-generating process. It helps you identify your goals, resources, timelines, drag points, and key assumptions. It helps you do whatever you’re doing more intelligently and effectively, for it helps you avoid the swamps of a project and find the straight paths and favorable winds. True, you may still end up in a swamp or perhaps the weather will change, but the very reason we have a word like “unexpected” is that there are an awful lot of things that are predictable.
I really don’t have much of a reply if the next question from the resistant creative is “why would I want to do something more intelligently and effectively?” I don’t get that question often.
But there’s something that resistant creatives don’t say that needs to be said. The other reason planning effectively can be an emotional process is that, when you do it right, you see that the only thing standing between you and your goal is you. It’s not the world. It’s not your history. It’s not some mysterious force. It’s simply whether you’ll make good choices and follow through with action. And for a creative person, finishing can open yourself up to a lot of rejection.
Better not to plan. Better to keep working on it in your head. Better to hedge your bets with 17 different projects, all of them in-process, safe, and easy to point to when someone asks you what you’ve been doing.
How’s that working for you?
When Reality Changes, Change Your Plans
The only reason we make plans and strategies is because we want the world to look more like what we want it to look like than what it does look like. Otherwise, we’d just let things take their due course and go along for the ride. A superficial reading of many religions and spiritualities seems to imply that this is the path of spiritual virtue; but read deeper – often just the preceding or next paragraph or verse in context – and you’ll likely find the text discussing ways to learn when and how to assert your will and when to see the hand of Providence in play.
In either case, many people get fixated on their plans and on how reality measures up to them. This is backward: when reality changes, change your plans.
This doesn’t mean give up, though. It means to look at the plan and see how the changes in the world relate to what you’ve planned out. Remember how I mentioned that planning was an awareness-generating process? Checking your plan against reality is also an awareness-generating process in that it gives you the opportunity to learn about your decision- and plan-making processes. It lets you tweak the way you make plans, thus making your next project all the more successful. Reviewing your plans makes you more successful, as does changing them.
The point of planning is to help you do things right, after all, not to make a plan that’s right. The lead quote from Eisenhower expresses this idea quite nicely.
So, though it’s counter-intuitive, if you’re planning effectively, you’ll always be changing your plans. (Tweet this.)
If you want to learn how to make yourself more efficient in the midst of shifting plans, or how to set up your environment to accomplish your best work, Chapter 8 of Start Finishing is for you.
Leah McClellan says
This is very thought provoking. I can’t claim I’m the best planner in the world, but I can say I’ve got enough experience with it to know that what you’re saying is true.
I like this especially: “Planning (done right) is an awareness-generating process. It helps you identify your goals, resources, timelines, drag points, and key assumptions. It helps you do whatever you’re doing more intelligently and effectively …”
I’ve made a lot of plans in the last few years, and most of them changed either due to reality (not a great plan or parts were flawed) or just because I was in a learning process (which I didn’t realize at the time, especially early on). But as I’ve implemented them and evaluated success or failure, I’ve changed them, and my planning is getting better and better (none are a failure, really, since learning is so valuable).
These days, I have a much clearer vision of what I want to accomplish because of all the plans I’ve made and revised or dropped completely for whatever reason. And that means my planning is (and will be) more focused and, I expect, much more effective with better results.
It’s definitely about awareness! Strengths, weaknesses, what works, what doesn’t, what I’m best suited for, what I am not, and so many other things. Thanks.
Rebecca Murtagh says
Excellent post! The expectation of adaptation is vital to any “plan”. Creatives, (in every role from leadership to technology to customer service) must continually adapt in their quest to deliver solutions in an ever – changing landscape.
Planning is the only way to intelligently approach of creation and implementation – and we are never really “finished”…A concept I stress in my book ‘Million Dollar Websites’ which attempts to shift thinking of the website as a project with a beginning and an end – to a business asset that must continually adapt to the needs of customers, technology and the organization…which is best facilitated through deliberate strategy and planning
…which you so articulately emphasize in your post.
Patty Gardner says
Well, that was exactly what I needed to hear. I have ADHD and really struggle with switching gears. So plan changes are a big problem. And I have a LOT of them. I’ve been pretty structured in the past – with a reasonable amount of success – but my life has changed and now I have very little structure at all. It’s driving me crazy! My husband tells me all the time that everybody deals with that but I’ve insisted that my schedule is worse.
As a result of the new way of doing things, I’m hardly planning at all which is TERRIBLE for someone with ADHD. Planning is a life line. It keeps me sane. It keeps me organized. It keeps bad things from happening. Going with the flow, which is what I’ve sort of been doing for a while, is NOT working.
I’ve looked at your planning tools and subscribed to your stuff but I’m not sure it will work for me. I’m a homemaker with a people centered life (kids and grandkids) rather than projects. Do you think it could work for me? If so, I’ll dig a little deeper.
Jess Sommers says
Hi Patty! We’re so glad this article was helpful for you. Our planners have been very successful for thousands of people over the years. Feel free to download our free planners to get a taste of our products: //productiveflourishing.com/free-planners/. Then if you like, we highly recommend our Momentum Planners, which can break down your plans even more: //productiveflourishing.com/momentum-planners/
Please let us know if you have any questions at all! Take care 🙂
Jim Young says
A plan is a basis for updating.
Its 2:30 am here in India and I was planning to work on Personal project this weekend (which is very much important for me to finish to gain my self-confidence). I suddenly realized that an idea occurred and I wanted to jot it down. I always faced this situation where I feel short of diaries though I have plenty of them and with all different formats. Every new idea pushed me to write things in different format which always left me confused. Am i so bad at planning ? Why do my plans always change ? Why do i need different types of plans for every idea i work over ?
I was very curious to understand if this behavior was really normal and happens with most of us. That’s when google was at my help and i jumped on your site. Its amazing to note that there are folks like you who too have felt this and so I just subscribed to your planners.
I am not sure if this would quench my thirst but I certainly felt that following few of your planners would make me feel good and get going. It will at-least ease the decision make of how my new planner should look like. I believe there is a science in how our brain works on planning things and I put my trust on you guys for it. I am excited to download my planners and see how those work for me.
Thanks for touching on so rare, sensitive, un-obvious but a topic of utmost importance. Plans do have the power to make or break you.