Planning is imagination and preparation

Yesterday I had a phone interview with Peter Morville who is writing a book about planning. We talked about planning, career and some of the things I’ve noticed so far living in Rwanda. The interview will be out next week.

Peter asked me what planning means to me. I love questions that require reflection like that one. I realize that over the years my thinking about planning has changed a lot. I tried to articulate some of that while we talked. The first thing is, I think of planning distinctly from goal setting.

I am certain that would be met with disagreement by most people. However, figuring out what you want to accomplish and why, and stating that clearly and unambiguously, mostly precedes the act of planning, which is what you do in order ready yourself to fulfill the goals set.

Sure, sometimes you may have a weakly defined starting point, or something like a fuzzy goal, but nonetheless, I consider planning to be what comes after you identified a problem space and decided to do something within it.

Having said that, these days I think of planning as a two part effort: imagination and preparation.

The first part is an exercise of envisioning scenarios, playing them out to understand what are the required actions and inputs, and the resulting effects and outcomes. I use the term imagining because I specifically mean playing it out in your mind. More like watching it unfold in your brain than actively playing it out yourself in the physical world. This does not mean you don’t use the physical world to figure out scenarios, I just mean the central concern of this aspect of planning is exploratory, observational and introspective (externalized if you are doing collaboratively, but still).

When considering scenarios, sometimes the constraints are self-evident from the get-go, sometimes they unfold through the process of going through scenarios themselves. Like imagining a camping trip and considering “What if it snows?”, “What if I run out of food?”, “What if a bear shows up?” The goal setting exercise that precedes this often creates a frame for the scenario landscape, sometimes with soft boundaries (i.e.: to become more emotionally aware and in touch with one’s own emotions), sometimes with hard boundaries (i.e.: to complete a sprint for a set of features in a software project).

In my view, by anticipating/considering a diversity of ways in which things can play out you can consider more or less likely scenarios and the next stage, preparation, can happen in alignment. This is where a lot of people hit a wall in a professional context: exploring how you are going to plan in this manner can clash with a presumed or pre-established work process, which has built-in assumptions about how planning takes place.

Having worked on projects with very different approaches along my career has reinforced the value of going through this exercise, even if it is to assume a pre-defined process to follow (and even if you are only doing it for half an hour to get yourself situated). At a minimum, it helps identify risks and potential obstacles, allowing you to be subsequently better prepared, and in certain situations it may give you insight into why you should reject the presumed process altogether.

A good distinction for me is that imagining, or identifying and playing through scenarios, is about effectiveness, reaching your goal. Preparation is concerned with efficiency, going through the real live situation with minimal disruption until that goal is met.

Preparation can be so many things though. Your packing list for a trip, a mise en place when you are cooking. These are the things we traditionally think about when we talk about preparing for something. However, I believe preparation also includes things like: getting into the right state of mind, setting expectations with yourself and others, minimizing likely disruptions, ensuring infrastructure is available, testing some aspect of the scenario, prototyping, and so on. My point is: what’s in scope for preparation is whatever is needed to satisfy the goal within the presumed scenario or scenarios you picked out.

You can prepare for one specific scenario, some variations on a scenario or multiple distinct scenarios, based on your judgment of the likelihood they will happen. You can emphasize your preparation for primary scenarios and have alternate plans for secondary scenarios. That’s what we mean when we say we have a plan B. And C and D and so on.

At the end, what we call a plan is a presumed set of circumstances (scenario or scenarios) and presumed artifacts, participants, flow, that were chosen to reach a particular goal.

I don’t know if this frame makes sense to anyone else, but it is currently helping me. I’m personally more attuned to the imagination stage of planning, though I usually prepare sufficiently, but know that I enjoy winging it too. Winging it is not ‘not planning’, it is not just ‘showing up and seeing what happens’. It means dealing with the scenario that plays out in reality without the proper preparation. And it’s just more fun that way sometimes. ;)

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