Farson gets right to the point when he says “Planning is built upon the flawed idea that it is possible to predict the future. Yet the future almost always takes us by surprise. Since there is simply no good way to predict future events, there is no sure way to plan for them.”
Study after study indicates what human beings are terrible at predicting the future. While our weather forecasts are getting better and better with technology, I still haven’t met anyone who trusts the forecast beyond the next couple of hours. I had to laugh this morning when watching Mike and Mike on ESPN. They were broadcasting from an outdoor location and complaining about not being dressed adequately because their weather apps had been wrong. We’re good at predicting rain when we’re getting wet.
Farson reinforces this idea: “By and large, organizations are simply not good at changing themselves. They change more often as a result of invasion from the outside or rebellion from the inside, less so as a result of planning.” It’s easier to plan for change when the barbarians are at the door.
So, do we abandon planning? No, planning is important to make sure everyone is on the same page and doing things as expected. But, we must compliment planning with scenarios. Planning is developing answers. Scenarios are created by asking questions. “What if” questions. What if a new competitor invades our space? What if we no longer have access to that material? What if our customers taste changes? I find that when teams and companies do adequate scenario planning, they’re better able to handle the changes that the future throws at them. When a change occurs, they have the sense that they had talked about that (or some form of it) and therefore are more equipped to handle the change. Farson says “At best, planning becomes a form of anticipatory, strategic thinking – the basis for organizational flexibility and readiness. That may be the most it can offer, but that’s a lot.”
It is a lot. It helps to react more quickly and be less shocked or depressed when the change does occur.
However, one scenario that I seldom see teams tossing on the table is one of great success. What happens if we’re more successful than we anticipate? I remember a TV commercial a few years ago of a small startup company gathering around their newly launched website to see if they get any orders for their new product. As the first order hits there is relief on their face. As ten orders hit smiles appear. As a hundred orders appear cheering breaks out. But as the orders continue to climb into the thousands and tens of thousands, a look of complete horror darkens their faces. They didn’t plan for greater than expected success.
Planning is good but inadequate. Add scenarios. What could (and will) go wrong? What happens if we’re extremely successful? You’ll be better equipped to deal with the future.
I’m continuing my series on an in-depth look at a wonderful little book that’s twenty years old this year. The title is Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson. You may want to consider dropping back and reading the previous blog posts about ABSURD! I think it will put each new one in great context.