Planning Towards Dangerous Irrelevance
(This post continues my look at the ideas of futurity and liminality. Futurity is the time span over which a decision is effective and liminality is a stage of ambiguity and disorientation that precedes a new way of thinking. I’m coming to the end of this phase: this post and next weeks should see me move onto another topic).
One of our more pressing business tasks is to open up our toolbox and take a critical look at the what and how of our profession. The first principle of surviving a liminal state is to stop doing things that keep you in past. We can find evidence to prove pretty much anything we want and, because we need to establish a sense of causality over our world, we are prone to just keep doing the stuff we've always done. This isn't an option for those of us who want to arrive in the future state in some semblance of order.
The second principle of surviving a liminal state is to start identifying things that will help you into the future. This means cultivating the scientific method as the basis of being a business professional. The main point here is not to prove what you believe, but to surface the anomalies that disprove what you believe.
A lot of business professionals don't like this. There is a word I hear all the time in business and it drives me nuts: "validation". People regularly set out to ‘validate’ or ‘revalidate’ that what they are doing is the best course of action.
When their validation exercise confirms that more or less they’re on the right track they return to what they were doing. They will make some tweaks around the margins to demonstrate 'lessons learned'. But this is basically confirmation and expectations biases rolled together in one convenient package. We can validate anything we want any time we want. Validating isn’t a good thing. It’s an exercise in self-deceit. Our brains are hard wired to find causality.
What we need to look for are the outliers to what we think we’re doing. Validation exercises will find some exceptions, but the focal point of the validation exercise is to confirm, not disprove. Where the focal point is to disprove and surface anomalies, we have a chance of learning our forward. Don’t invite me to a validation workshop, I’ve got better things to do with my time.
When experimenting our way towards the tools and techniques of the future it is prudent to assume that nothing we do in the present will be adequate to provide for the future. This helps prime the creative response and mitigates against our tendency to construct believable fables of our own genius.
Always assume that there's something we’ve missed, that there is something coming that no one expected. It will help cultivate an attitude of being present in what we do so we have more chance of recognising critical developments for what they are rather than what we want them to be.
My emphasis on liminality, futurity and the limitations of planning doesn't mean I advocate making things up as you go along. I stress the importance of being intentional in business. It’s just that mass-production era techniques detract from being intentional in our disrupted world.
The nexus of digital/social/mobile/cloud/analytics are having a similar effect on existing management doctrine that the theories of relativity had on Newtonian physics. Mass-production era doctrine just doesn't explain the world adequately any more. Being intentional is so important that we can’t afford to dilute our intention with the tools and techniques evolved for a deterministic past.
That said, plans are indispensable in one critical domain: the commitment to act. One unfortunate outcome of our age of information is that it encourages people to wait until all the important elements of an issue have been described before acting. The well attested explosion of data means that the rate of knowledge invalidation is also growing. Take into account a rapidly changing environment in a liminal world and you can basically guarantee that decision makers won’t be able to fully configure a decision in time to act upon it.
We attempt to solve this by framing a situation such that it is explicable and resolvable. But this goes to our need for a sense of agency as much as our ability to make an impact. And because we don't tend to reflect on how an issue is framed, when we pitch it wrong at the start we've lost the initiative immediately.
People sometimes express a desire to 'be decisive’ and satisfy this desire by obtaining a powerful analytics platform or a big data warehouse or a connected a knowledge base. These are understandable responses and examples of what I mean as being typical of a mass-production era. The reality is both a lot easier and scarier.
The quality of being decisive is deciding to act. It is action that proves the decision. Decision without action is just intention. In a liminal world intention is indistinguishable from wishful thinking. And trouble ensues where the wish is the father of the thought.
This is where the plan comes in: it fixes the point of action. There is therefore only short range plans. Plans with a timeline over which we can observe or discern in some way an effect of the decision and test that effect against our intention. These are plans that impel us to act today. If there is no action built into a plan then we have no means of surfacing the anomalies that we need to improve our beliefs about the world. Wishful thinking.
I heard once that any time frame beyond twenty years practically equals infinity. No one is foolish enough to put up a plan with any confidence that will last for infinity. In a liminal world my sense is that anything beyond five years equals infinity (and I might be too generous). Think for a moment what happened to the long-range plans laid down in 2006. Within one year how many were invalidated by the release of the iPhone?
By 2012, five years after the iPhone, we were fully in the grip of the digital/social/mobile/cloud/analytics nexus. Who saw that coming (in hindsight, many of us). So much happened so quickly we were left seriously off balance. And yet we continue to put time and effort into building long-range plans that we expect to last with certainty into what is effectively infinity. This is the height of foolishness.
I'm not ranting against planning. Plans are critical if they fix the point of action and get us moving forward. They are critical if they give us a chance to surface anomalies that will invalidate our beliefs. They are critical if they help us discern how many years practically equal infinity.
Part of my motivation to question the automatic response ‘we need a better plan’ is to help business professionals connect with their creative selves. This isn’t about writing poetry or sketching art (though I suggest we could benefit by replacing a lot of management collateral with poetry and art).
Business is a fundamentally creative exercise. It’s only when individual professionals embrace their capacity to think through their own problems that we can avoid what Gianpiero Petriglieri identified as a "dangerous irrelevance". In his November 2015 HBR article ‘What if Management Ideas Actually Mattered’, Petriglieri pondered the question "what if the current state of leadership and management is not a result of our inadequacy but an outcome of our work?"
It wasn’t until the second read that I fully got hold of his idea. It’s about questioning the roles we play and have played in the context of ‘diluting management thinking in the pursuit of relevance and inspiration’. For management thinkers,
“Portraying managers as impatient, action-oriented and result-obsessed people with no regard for elegance, depth and nuance, however, not only insults their intelligence and humanity - and ours. It also signals that we should deploy a minimal amount of both in order to occupy our roles”
The message here is that we need to stop farming out responsibility for insight into our world. As business professionals we need to find and cultivate our voice, in order to better describe the future that we alone can see. Petriglieri,
“If the business literature was more literature and less business, however, it could shake off its instrumental provincialism - its reluctance to value critiques or reflections that do not offer immediate solutions. Doing so might free us up to ask important questions”
This is why I’m speaking out against unreflective planning. It’s dangerous in the sense that it enables our innate capacity to fool ourselves, it’s wasteful in terms of there being a lot more we can do with our precious time and it’s keeping us from asking more important questions. It’s a refined form of busyness which insults our intelligence and humanity.