The Difference Between Planning and Futurity

Decision Making Planning Futurity

The purpose of this blog is to capture my thoughts about the current state and future direction of the profession of management.

I don't buy into the leadership vs management debate: it feels like a false dichotomy to me.

Part of the problem is we need new words. So I use [.] as a place holder instead of 'manager', 'management', ‘leader’ or ‘leadership’. The idea is that by taking the word away we can see these people more clearly.

I'm keeping the blog simple and free of fiddle faddle. If you want to talk things through please hit me up on Twitter (@rl_rohan) or LinkedIn (Rohan Light).

My previous posts have been about setting the scene, to try and identify the niche that the modern [.] fills. Much of this has been abstract, diffuse and a perhaps a little preachy. This post, and the next few to come will start to get a little more specific. I'll look at some of the domains the [.] must become effective in and, by doing so, hopefully explain why I've chosen to stop using the word ‘manager’.

The defining trait of the [.] is that they take responsibility for making something important happen, where important is something that is of social and economic benefit to their community. I’ll get to issues of materiality later: for now I'm interested in thinking about the ‘when’ of the work of the modern [.]. To take responsibility for making important things happen means doing something today that has a desired effect in the future. This means spanning the present and the future, tying them together with a vision for that future… as well as a theory of how to achieve it from the present.

The word vision is horribly overused and can get people into unforeseen difficulty. I suggest that whenever we use the word vision that we should balance it off with the word theory. If we cast ourselves into an uncertain future, we’d like to rely on more than vague articulations of it being a better place. We will want to get a sense of specifics, why those specifics hang together and how we will achieve them.

This desire and capacity to identify a future that is internally consistent is critical and a necessary condition to being a [.]. Some will protest that it is impossible to know the future. They are correct, but I'm not looking for whether the future can be knowable. Or even predicted.

I'm interested if people can conceive a way to make the future malleable. This is one of the reasons why I don’t use the word manager. There are many senior managers who do not see the future as being malleable. We can hear this in their language. The key point is not whether they use the language of vision: it is whether they use the language of theory.

If we take responsibility for making something important happen, then we must at some point take ourselves out the equation, while still maintaining a coherent sense of direction. What I mean by this is we need fewer heroic leaders with great vision shouting ‘follow me!' We need more reasoned leaders who have thought through how to actualize their vision. It’s an ‘and’ situation: I look for both vision and theory. We've had plenty of theory without vision courtesy of the “excessive truth claims” of neo-classical economics. And like sugary drinks, it’s easy to get sick of vision without theory.

People will point to the idea that, the further the future from we are now, the harder it is to get specific. This is true and goes to the heart of one of the greatest challenges any [.] will face: the futurity of their decision making. Futurity is a difficult topic to think through. We touch on it when we talk about long term or short term planning. The idea of planning for the future is attractive and appeals to our need to control and explain. In specific domains it is important and can be effective. However, it is often times simply a response to the cry ‘we must do something’ in response to the challenge of working simultaneously in two time dimensions: the present and the future.

The problems with planning are fairly well documented. It is indicative of how deeply rooted the idea of planning is that, even when cognitive science points these problems out, we still continue to take up weeks of our working year with planning.

A common cliche misattributed to Einstein is the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over gain and expecting different results. Seen another way, this is persistence, which we admire. The cliche better describes perseveration, which is the repetition of a particular response despite the absence or cessation of a stimulus. This is what planning can become. We do it because we do it because it needs to be done.

I remember a situation in a large organization when lots of people got upset when things weren't going their way. I was working across many of the groups involved and every single one blamed everyone else’s planning. The problem was not that people’s planning was poor; it was that the situation in question couldn't be planned for.

These situations are emergent: they are still unfolding and are sufficiently different from what has come before that we can’t reasonably use precedent as a useful guide. This is both a failure of diagnosis and an example of Maslow’s Hammer: I have a planning tool and I’m going to use it damnit! There is always a chance that any plan we come up with randomly fits the emergent facts. In these situations we feed something that plagues every planner: the planning fallacy.

From Daniel Kahneman: “The planning fallacy describes plans and forecasts that are unrealistically close to best case scenarios and could be improved by consulting the statistics of similar cases… The authors of unrealistic plans are often driven by the desire to get the plan approved, supported by the knowledge that projects are rarely abandoned unfinished merely because of overruns in costs or completion times. In such cases, the greatest responsibility for avoiding the planning fallacy lies with the decision makers who approve the plan.”

I use a quote of Helmuth von Motlke the Elder to work through the problem reconciling planning with futurity of decisions: “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond first contact with the main hostile force.”

We often paraphrase this as ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’. I use the original quote when thinking through problems of futurity in innovation. It’s worth stepping through the main elements.

“No plan of operations…” means plans which executes strategy. It does not mean all plans, just plans involving specifics of blood and treasure committed to a particular time and place. The important thing here is to ignore the paraphrased sense, which can lead people to the model of the ‘hero’ leader who makes gut check decisions. We know from mountains of research, especially since the growth of analytics in business, that machine assisted human decision making is a powerful addition to the management toolbox.

“… with any certainty…” is an interesting element. My sense is that had von Moltke had the benefit of modern cognitive and probabilistic science he would have said ‘with sufficient confidence’. I make the distinction because he’s referring to uncertainty and we now use probabilistic methods to model uncertainty. The issue is how confident we are in committing blood and treasure to a particular time and place… 90% confident? 60% confident? 30% confident? Depending on the circumstances we might have a go with 60% confidence, or even a desperate roll of the dice at 30% confidence.

Now, we might succeed anyway… it’s just that our plan of operations had little to nothing to do with it. This is important because the [.] must always be alert to the illusion of control. This is the idea that if we apply a set of techniques, then we impose our will upon the situation and our results are therefore causal to our intervention. The illusion of control is one reason why I advise everyone to stay away from soft-scoring risk matrices. They play to our capacity for bullsh*tting ourselves. Sometimes things just happen: not because of what we do or even in spite of what we do. They just happen. Students of history are well aware of pivotal events hinging on sheer happen-stance.

“… beyond first contact with the main hostile force” means when we run into the true heart of what opposes us. Remember that the [.] takes responsibility for something important, where important means valuable to society. This means the [.] will always be opposed. If we want to change the world, we will be putting someone else into a loss position. ‘The main hostile force’ represents the heart of what opposes us and, depending on the scale of the change we wish to make, may be very large indeed.

It’s at this point that I try to draw the distinction between planning and futurity of decisions. The ‘main hostile force’ may be of our own creation. We do our work within and across time. We grow (or possibly more often) don’t grow our knowledge about our domain as we move through time. We can run up against the outcome of a decision we made 10 years ago that completely stops us in our tracks.

This is the futurity of decision making. This is why plans may be completely successful in terms of their internal logic and completely disastrous in terms of fulfilling our strategic vision.

The roots of the problem is in the way our brains are wired. ‘Temporal ordering’ is one of the hardest tasks we can put our brains to. We’re getting more familiar about the cognitive problems of task switching aka multitasking. The problems are as bad when we jump in and out of time periods.

We can quickly exhaust ourselves working through a progression of actions in a temporal sequence. The good news is that it can be done. The bad news takes us back to my amended von Moltke “… with sufficient confidence…”. Temporal ordering is hard enough but when we add probabilistic reasoning into the mix we fry our brains very quickly. The news is bad because to move from planning to futurity we must start thinking probabilistically.

There is no other option if you wish to commit blood and treasure into the future and make it happen in accordance with your vision. Because the thing we’re mitigating here is the illusion of control. The [.] takes responsibility for making something important happen in the future and can’t know how long that will take.

To give themselves as much of a chance as possible, they have to take confidence that their actions had something to do with it. Otherwise we are confronted with unpleasant implications that we have little agency in the world and things just happen. And without belief, we will achieve nothing.

We must believe in order to bring our essential traits of human creativity to bear on the future. But we must also train ourselves to apply probabilistic reasoning to our temporal ordering. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and unless the [.] takes responsibility for thinking in terms of the futurity of their actions, they cannot reasonably take responsibility for bringing about the future they work so hard to bring about.

This, then, is one of the main reasons why I believe the word ‘manager’ is insufficient. The manager exists mainly in the present, while the[.] exists in two dimensions and chooses to do so as part of their fundamental identity.