To plan or not to plan… is that the question?

Most of us have been through a structured planning process at some stage in our lives. Perhaps it was in a corporate environment, maybe in planning our career or even around exercise or diet? If you are anything like me you may have researched different planning methodologies via the web or maybe by reading a book or two.

It’s not my intention to explore different planning processes here or to look at all the topics related in some way to planning (e.g. goal setting, prioritizing, implementation, time management etc). If you are interested in looking at a specific approach to planning, one popular system is the GTD method laid out by David Allen in his book Getting Things Done. In fact if you’re interested in finding out more about this approach (but don’t want to buy the whole book) you might want to check out this very useful summary.

What I am interested in exploring is how much formal planning is actually necessary or indeed useful? Can too much planning be a hindrance rather than a help in getting you to your goals or in leading a fulfilling life?

Late last year I came across a Latin proverb “amat victoria curam” which translates into English as “victory loves careful preparation”. Digging a little deeper I recently discovered that in Latin, the word “Cura” actually has a double meaning. In a positive sense it means taking care or being diligent but in a negative sense, it can mean trouble or anxiety! (see here for more details).

This dual meanings really captures the dilemma a lot of people face when it comes to planning how to achieve what they define as success whether its in their careers or personal lives.

It’s pretty obvious that when you decide where you want to go, you have to work out how you are going to get there. However, in creating these plans, and trying to implement them, we can generate a lot of stress and anxiety for ourselves. Some people find they are so busy planning every aspect of their day that they have lost any sense of spontaneity in their lives.

In one of the blogs I follow, The Art of Non-Conformity, the author asked his readers whether they felt goals were necessary. Some argued that you need to plan to set direction and measure success. There was also strong support for the view that too much planning stops us “living in the present”. For a powerful advocate of this latter view you might like to check out achieving without goals on the blog ZenHabits.

In reality, the disagreement here is really one of degrees. Sure there are people who plan ever aspect of their lives but even mentally making a note of what you need to buy at the shop on the way home from work is itself a form of planning.

My experience has shown me that people’s attitude to planning can come down to questions of personal preference and the experiences they have had with particular processes.  If you have ever had to sit in a room for two days with a group of people creating a detailed strategic plan that then sat in a draw for a year (until the process was then repeated) you would have a good reason to be turned off that type of planning for life.

To me the main issues to consider in approaching planning on an organisational level (as opposed to a personal one) are as follows:

  • How relevant is the planning process you are undertaking?  Planning processes need to be honest, easy to follow and appropriate to the situation at hand
  • Have you involved the right people in the planing process? This seems obvious but there may be other parties that need to be involved. Are there other plans being used by other stakeholders that might impact the one you are doing now?
  • What level of detail do you need? OK if you are designing the next moon lander there may be all sorts of incredibly detailed engineering, mechanical and costing dimensions that need to be considered but it’s actually possible to create a strategic plan for a business that can be captured on one page!
  • Are the planning outcomes easily understood, reality tested and how often will they be reviewed?

Do you think there are any major issues when considering planning that should be added to this list?