Where Planning Is Needed and Where It Fails

Your question illustrates why the idea of “strategic planning” is an oxymoron. Strategy is the opposite of planning.

Planning works best when we are transforming inanimate objects. We can predict how objects will respond to a series of pre-planned actions. Planning is based on linear thinking. Its success is typified by the building of the railroads, the factory assembly line, and landing on the moon. Starting with the industrial revolution, linear planning was the revolutionary idea reshaping the world. However, the very success of planning has also exposed its limits.

Planning does not work in dealing with independent people who have their own goals and who make their own decisions based upon those goals. Even when those people are your employees, you cannot control them or transform them like you can an inanimate object. You need to deal with them strategically in order to get an agreement about how to work together.

Planning works in a limited way among people when people agree to work together. The coordination of planning is necessary within organizations. Planning allows organizations to duplicate, synchronize, and perfect their internal processes. However, as those processes go from working with perfectly predictable objects to working with unpredictable people, the success of planning declines.

When we must work with people outside of our own organization, planning becomes less and less useful. We must adapt more and plan less. We can plan for our customers buying a certain amount of our products or services. However, they do not buy because we plan it. They buy when and if we have a working strategy that wins them over. How well that strategy works and how much they buy is somewhat predictable based upon the past, but conditions are constantly changing so the past does not completely predict the present or the future.

A Series of Pre-Defined Steps

Planning requires developing a series of steps to produce a well-defined result. We plan for what we can control. We can control objects, but our control of other people is always more limited. Planning requires people working together, but people are never as predictable as objects.

Planning works best when we have complete information. When working with objects, we can know what raw materials we need, how to transform them, how to measure them, and exactly what the end product will be from a set of known steps. This process assumes that our control of resources, tools, and raw materials. We call this our "span of control." This span of control can include other people, but only to the degree they cooperate with the plan. Factories, offices, and supply chains are controlled because everyone agrees on their goals and responsibilities.

However, there are few areas of life where we have complete information and control of resources, tools, and raw materials. These are the areas in which strategy is required. Strategy is not a plan, but an adaptive loop that not only factors in change, but actually required change to create new opportunities.

Planning is a linear process. Starting with a raw state and, step-by-step, transforming that raw condition into a finished product. Each step performs a specific role in that transformation. While some steps might have to be repeated, the process moves in only one direction, from raw to finished.

However, as a linear process it is a limited process. It can not produce a revolutionary breakthrough. Such breakthroughs come only from strategic insight into a given situations and our ability to test that insight. Many of these tests will fail. Strategy is not predictable but problematic.

The Necessity of Planning

Planning in controlled environments is not only useful but necessary. In controlled environments, plans are shared among people to eliminate waste and improve efficiency. People working at one stage in the process know what to expect from earlier stages. Each stages input and output can be measured. The planned steps results in a predictable outcome. Control means that production meets prediction as planned.

Planning for controlled environments is so predictable that it would be nice to think that everything can be controlled. Unfortunately, even in a perfect world, as plans extend away from innanimate objects, problems with knowledge and predictability arise. Outside of areas of organization and agreement, planning and linear thinking work less and less well. In everyday business terms, we can plan production, but we cannot plan sales in the same way.

We describe the broader competitive world as a place where plans collide producing situations which no one plans. Strategy must continuously adapt to these unforseen circumstances. In that we control, we can limit change, but change continuously affects what we can control. Strategy is the frame of mind we use in adapting to change. Those who stick to their plans despite changes in the environment are doomed.

The Limits of Planning

The problem starts with the complexity and chaotic nature of human interactions. As individuals, we do not always know our own minds. As we interact with one another, our network of relationships is non-linear and open-ended. New, unexpected situations emerge out of these interactions that no one intends, much less plans. We cannot precisely know what forces are shaping external conditions, the action others may take to affect the situations, or even the precise effect of our actions.

We attempt to plan in environments that are outside of span of control. We have marketing plans, sales plans, purchasing plans, and so on. We base our plans on past results and our future hopes, and, when we are working with large groups of people, past results have a certain momentum going into the future. However, if we are wise, we still plan for the worst as well as the best.

Most of all, however, we cannot plan the opportunities or problems that constantly arise out of the dynamic environment of human interactions. This is the boundary beyond which an organization's and each individual's adaptive reflexes become more important. This is the boundary beyond which planners cannot pass, where warriiors are required. Read on..