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Weekly 3: Failed plans are useful

Summary: Imagine failure up front. See past a plan's limits. Create a realistic map. (~4 min read)

Idea Journal Weekly 3

February 23 · Issue #127 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Imagine failure up front. See past a plan’s limits. Create a realistic map. (~4 min read)

#1. Imagine failure now to prevent it in the future
Decision making expert Gary Klein writes in the Harvard Business Review that projects can fail because people are reluctant to voice their concerns during the planning phase.
Klein recommends conducting a “premortem” at the beginning of a project to discuss those concerns, and to increase a project’s likelihood of success.
A premortem is the “hypothetical opposite” of a postmortem. Whereas a postmortem aims to understand what happened after a project is complete, a premortem starts with the premise that the project has failed.
The task is to generate plausible reasons for the failure, and to prevent it from happening.
Klein gives the example of a team at a Fortune 50 company that conducted a premortem on a planned billion-dollar environmental sustainability project. 
The project leader began the premortem with the assumption that the project failed. Everyone in the session then took several minutes to write down every possible cause of the failure.
One executive suggested that the project failed because employees lost interest after the CEO retired. Another attributed the failure to a government agency’s policy change, and the negative impact this had on the business case.
An important benefit of a premortem is that it makes team members more sensitive to early signs of risk or trouble once the project has started. 
As Klein puts it, “a premortem may be the best way to circumvent any need for a painful postmortem.”
#2. Planning > plans
In his book The Personal MBA, author Josh Kaufman writes that, “People are consistently and universally horrendous at planning.”
Here are three reasons why:
1. We underestimate completion times: the more complex a project, the more interdependencies it includes. These interdependencies make it more likely that something at some point will go wrong, and delay the plan.
2. We assume everything will remain constant: by imagining that everything will happen according to the plan, we tend to underestimate the role and influence of other factors. You probably won’t see many plans that include the line item “Project manager gets sick and is out for a month.”
3. We don’t include buffer time: for a complex project, Kaufman recommends including a few months of “slack time” to account for unexpected delays and other unforeseen events. The challenge is that slack time is never seen as acceptable. If you approach an executive, customer, or partner with a plan that includes a few months of slack time, their response is likely to be some version of: “That won’t work – get it done faster.”
But the inaccuracy of plans doesn’t make planning worthless. 
Plans are useful because the thought process required to create them helps you understand a project’s dependencies, requirements, and risks more thoroughly.
Kaufman’s advice is that you should use plans, but not depend on them: “as long as you keep working as quickly and effectively as possible, the project will be done as soon as it’s feasible.”
#3. Connect your plans to your reality
Author and entrepreneur Paul Hawken writes in his book Growing a Business that the value of creating financial projections for a new business is not the accuracy of the projections, but the process itself.
Creating such projections forces you to examine the details of your underlying assumptions and reasoning.
For example, if you expect sales to increase 100% in a year, then you’ll have to know how many units you need to sell and the size of the market.
This exercise isn’t valuable because you can predict the future, or because your projections will be right. You can’t predict the future, and you’ll most likely be wrong.
It’s valuable because having completed the exercise, you now have an internal map for yourself. You’re better prepared to do what’s needed the next day – “not the next year, or five years from now, but the next day.”
As soon as you act the next day, you can tell whether you’re on the right path. You can check your assumptions against reality.
Quote of the week
“Writing a book is not unlike planning a battle or painting a picture. The technique is different, the materials are different, but the principle is the same. The foundations have to be laid, the data assembled, and the premises must bear the weight of their conclusions … In battles, however, the other fellow interferes all the time and keeps up-setting things, and the best generals are those who arrive at the results of planning, without being tied to plans.”
- British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in his book My Early Life
Other Weekly 3 issues about planning
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