BowlWe are always planning – it’s fun and we get to focus on the future where everything is possible.  And Americans are forward-looking people.  We rarely focus on the past except to provide a guide to the future.

But planning in America is usually a terrible process – in fact, it’s a complete waste of time and effort in most instances because we are unwilling to examine our biases and the underlying assumptions of our planning – and we don’t take the planning far enough to be effective.

Not this is not a treatise on the developing SMART goals or following a set agenda – those are tools to be used by planners to develop effective plans.  But tools must be used properly to be effective.

Let me illustrate with an analogy – woodworking.  My wife assigned me my mid-life crisis in 1999 – woodworking – as much fun as a sports car and a lot safer than women per her plus she gets useful furniture and other nice objects.  When I go into my shop to make something, I need to consider if I have the necessary materials (wood, finish, sandpaper, etc.), adequate tools to do what I plan and the right skills and knowledge to perform the tasks necessary to make whatever I have in mind.  All of them are necessary to be successful.  If I want to make an 18” diameter bowl but my lathe can only accommodate a 16” bowl blank, then I can’t make the bowl even though I have the materials and skills.

When we plan, we are basing our plans on a set of assumptions that the world is in a certain circumstance – it’ll behave the way we expect it to.  If we plan to travel from Spokane to Seattle by car, we assume that I-90 will be open and we can drive on it.  Our assumptions are based on our experience (how many times we’ve driven to Seattle) and information we gather from sources that we believe are reliable (Washington Department of Transportation website, weather.com, etc.).  And usually our assumptions are valid – BUT – we ignore factors that we deem insignificant and negligible because they are rare or unlikely.

In northern Virginia, my usual commute from home to office was approximately one hour.  I could plan on the bus arriving at the bus stop near my house within a few minutes (I would arrive about 5 minutes before, just in case it’s early) and the trip into the Pentagon Metro Station would take approximately 40 minutes and the walk or Metrorail (in bad weather) would be another 10-15 minutes.  I could plan to read, nap or listen to music on a reliable basis.  Until the day that a truck full of black powder went off the Interstate.  The morning AND evening commute were a mess because the authorities shut down a good part of the Interstate.  So much for planning – because the assumptions weren’t true for that instance.

A similar situation occurred on 9/11.  When the Pentagon was hit, the Pentagon bus station was shut down which effectively ended Metro bus service in northern Virginia for the evening commute.  But in this situation, even though I usually went to the Pentagon Metro Bus Station to catch a ride home, because I had already evaluated different ways of meeting the objective of getting home, I knew that I had options.  What I did was take Metrorail from Rosslyn to Dunn Loring and asking my son to meet me in our car.  I was also able to help three of my co-workers to get home using the same route and then giving them a ride to their homes.  Because in planning my commute, I knew what my assumptions were (the Pentagon Metro Bus Station would be functional) and I knew what my options were if the assumptions were false (it wasn’t functional).

Likewise, when I’m working in my shop, I might start with a bowl blank and plan to make a bowl that’s 4” deep but if the wood has cracks or other defects, the “bowl” may end up being a platter.  But because I know what my assumptions are when I started, I’m able to adjust my plan, as I go, to fit the reality instead of my initial hopes.

This is why planning is important.  Not because you have a detailed list of instructions to follow – useful though it is – but because you know what your options are when the plan doesn’t match reality, which occurs with most every plan.

In the 1950’s, the Navy’s Strategic Project Office developed a planning methodology called PERT – Program Evaluation and Review Technique – a method that helped identify the critical path and supported decision-making.  Today, PERT is performed with computers and requires only the entry of the name, start and stop dates and a few other pieces of information.  It’s easy to use.  In the 1950’s, it was all done by hand using slide rules, mechanical calculators and lots of paper.  It was time and manpower consuming – so it wasn’t done very often.  But, as one participant stated, “When we made a change, we knew what the consequences were.”

That’s why planning is important.  We envision the future with our planning.  When it’s done right, the plan is more likely to be fulfilled as intended because the assumptions are validated and when a change must be made, we know what the consequences will be.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.