Sunday, November 25, 2012

Yes, we plan!

One of the tasks typically associated with management is planning. Planning of budgets, planning of resources, of personnel, of projects, roadmaps for products and so on.

However, as some organizations are getting to be more agile, a myth has arisen that 'when you do agile, you do not plan anymore'. This myth is fostered by the antagonists of agile who use it to point out how very unprofessional agile methods are. And then there are those who embrace the myth because then they can skip the tedious planning work.

They are wrong! And certainly the myth is wrong. Agile managers do plan. (And so do others in an agile organization, like POs, for instance).

But there is a difference between conventional and agile planning. To explain, let me back up a little.

What is planning actually? It is the organization of activities to reach a specific goal. It requires to make assumptions about the future and draws up actions for future developments.  In other words, lots of unknowns to take into account:  those unknowns that you are aware of - things that could happen but you do not know if, when and how they will happen (risk management typically tries to address these). For example, when planning a big project you can assume that some project team members will be sick some time, but you do not know who, when and for how long.

But then there are those unknowns that you cannot take into account because you cannot even imagine that those unknown events will occur. We call them the unknown unknowns. In hindsight these events make sense and we often hear: 'I could have known', or 'I should have planned for this' but in reality this was not possible.
A manager might, for example, plan personnel resources for the upcoming year.  The plan will likely become completely irrelevant after the company has surprisingly merged with a competitor.

In traditional scenarios, it is usually considered a major problem when a plan changes.  My observation is that an interesting process occurs: A plan is made by making assumptions about (predicting...) the future and once the plan is in place, it becomes fact, i.e. it is no longer just an assumption that may be wrong or may be affected by unknown events.  Rather, it becomes a known quantity as if it already happened.  Don't we all want to be able to predict the future?  And if we spend so much time analyzing it and writing it down in tools made just for this, then it simply becomes fact, or at least 95% sure.  Any deviation from the plan is a problem and is considered a bad thing or at least a nuisance. 

The big difference when planning with an agile mindset is that agile principles do not take the plan for fact but rather expect that the plan will change due to all the unknowns and that this will happen often and that this is actually a good thing.  Agile frameworks are founded on the principle of continuous change and therefore changing the plan will be part of the day to day process in an agile environment. Actually, it is the planning that is more valuable than the plan:

In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.
Dwight D. Eisenhower

Of course, the consequence of the ever-changing plan is, that you should not spend much time and effort working on it.  It is an illusion that working hard to try to foresee all possible events will yield a stable plan!  Remember the unknown unknowns.  You simply cannot predict the future - unless you are clairvoyant.  Which would make planning easy and require little effort.  I just haven't gotten the hang of  it.

So, please, you managers and planners out there: Make plans, but don't take them too seriously! All your plans will be mostly wrong until you're almost finished with whatever you plan. It is an ongoing learning process, and you will keep on discovering new facets that you did not expect and that will change your plans.  But if you do not plan, because the plan is probably wrong anyway, you will miss out on all the learning that takes place when planning.


  1. @Christof, I agree and comparison occurred to me - plans could be regarded as prototypes in some aspects - we should not stick to them "because they are ours", should be cheap to throw away and to change to be able not to take them seriously.

    1. Fedya, yes, I think that the analogy works well.

  2. Nice topic, but not really thought-through position and semantics...
    Planning doesnt at all equal prototyping - ignoring that difference will inevitably lead to damaging consequences, in a real-life context.
    Maybe the profound misunderstanding is the lack of perceived difference between "planning" and "getting fit for the future". Overall, I invite everyone interested in the subject to take a look at a paper I wrote some time ago, about that difference:
    Making Performance Management Work: From fixed to relative performance contracts, and towards simple, ethical and empowering ways of dealing with performance

    1. Hmm, I am not sure how much we differ in our opinions on how to handle the future. I believe we simply have a different understanding of planning. Your semantics imply that planning means much effort to predict the future and the assumption that the prediction is true. I believe that planning means to think about possible measures to take to reach a goal.