Planning Fails When …..

Planning fails when the the client and the planner perceive a large goal and attempt to reach it in several small steps.  The rule is, “You cannot cross a wide canyon with several small jumps.”  And yet, to try to implement one big leap is just as failure prone.

It is a self contradicting idea that presents a deeper truth.   Like “You must do it alone, but you cannot do it by yourself.”

Our contradiction is, “You cannot solve a big problem with several, preplanned small steps and you cannot solve the same problem with one big preplanned step.”

What are the deeper thoughts?

  • If the problem is big, you cannot see the solution from the starting point, so one big leap won’t work very often.  If you can see the solution from the beginning, it is not a big problem.  Perhaps more correctly, problems to which you know the answer are not, by definition, problems.
  • Big problems can be broken down into smaller pieces, but you won’t know what the pieces look like until you get involved with implementing.

The solution to a big problem is to iterate the answer.  Use the results of each step to condition or redefine the next step.  Begin with the end target in reasonably clear focus.  Outline a candidate series of steps.  Implement a likely first step.  Use what you have learned from that step and decide if the original target is still clearly and properly defined.  Modify the outline.  Decide to proceed or not.  Take the next likely step.  Revisit the target and see if modifications are needed, either to the target, the projection, or to the steps taken so far.  Take another step.  Repeat as necessary.

Sometimes you will need to return to the beginning because your original target has been found to be a flawed description, or the process elected so far can now be seen to be no solution.  The ability to restart is an important design element.

Consider whether it is even possible to get where you want to go.  If not, invoke Max Ma’s wisdom, “That is not a problem; that is impossible.”

The danger for most people is two-fold.  They do not clearly know the endpoint and they are careless in the choice of the next step.  They often invoke the Greedy Algorithm.  Even if they reach a good conclusion using that process, (which is no certainty) they will have learned nothing.

When you purposefully reach the iteratively amended target, you will find several useful things have happened.

  1. You will understand the target (even if you did not need to revise it) and you will understand how the process attaches to it.
  2. You will have a maintainable process.  You could apply it again to similar situations with appropriate amendments or you can amend it successfully if things change.
  3. You will be able to define new goals in which this target is one of the steps.

In mathematics and physics and I suppose, business, an elegant solution has three characteristics.  It will be simple, it will clarify the problem and it will give a hint at why the solution works.

Big questions need good answers.  Good answers are ones you learn from.  They are elegant.

Be careful.  It is never a solution to implement an action and then bend the problem to validate the process.  That is like doing the budget at the end of the year.  Surprising how often you get that right.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

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