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Planning & Preparation

The crew of the Santa Cruz 50, Deception, preparing for a spinnaker hoist. Many elements have to be coordinated to raise the sail successfully. Photo courtesy of Renegade Sailing.

Elaborate, long-range planning, is one of the abilities that distinguishes people from other animals. We have all heard the importance of planning, whether in running a marketing campaign or planning a wedding. So why, then, do we resist it? The answer, quite simply, is that it requires effort.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains it well in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Planning is done in the frontal lobe of our brain, a region also associated with other higher cognitive skills such as problem solving, thinking, and organizing. Kahneman describes experiments that measured the energy used in cognitive problem solving by looking at pupil dilation and other factors. In short, we have a natural inclination toward cognitive ease, i.e. we do not want to think too hard. But a wise person understands that saving energy in the front end may cost more energy in the back end. Hence, the nearly endless range of aphorisms about planning and preparation.

People who have achieved extraordinary success virtually always have a habit of planning and forward thinking. Jeff Bezos, currently, the wealthiest man on the planet, says

When somebody congratulates Amazon on a good quarter, I say thank you. But what I’m thinking to myself is, those quarterly results were actually pretty much fully baked about 3 years ago. Today I’m working on a quarter that is going to happen 3 years from now; not next quarter.

Chess grandmaster, Magnus Carlsen, says he can see an astonishing 15 moves ahead, sometimes 20. He also has an IQ of 190; but the point is that his ability to win comes from how far ahead he is thinking. The same is true in a yacht race, in battle, and in many other endeavors.

There is a counterpoint to planning when it goes too far. Quite often, people use planning to delay the uncertain outcomes of action. The purpose of good planning is to reduce uncertainties and be prepared for unexpected situations, but it is never possible to eliminate all uncertainty, and at some point we must take the risk and act. General Colin Powell says of making decisions, he waits until he has about 60% of the data required, then he uses gut instincts, intuition, and personal experience to make the choice. The malady of Analysis Paralysis can be fatal to a fast-moving business.

As a personal example, my wife and I spent two years preparing our boat for an extended cruise. As our deadline for leaving arrived we had four of the boat’s valuable lockers filled and labelled with items To Be Installed. Six years later, two of the lockers were still full. Much of what we took we did not really need. The only real way to know what you need is to get out there and start doing it.

At the extreme might be the view of Elon Musk, who says of SpaceX

I don't really have a business plan. I had a business plan way back in the zip 2 days; but these things are just always wrong, so I didn't bother with business plans after that.

To reconcile these seemingly disparate viewpoints, I propose the following:

  • It is possible to both under plan and over plan.

  • The planning process is valuable, in and of itself, because it gets you to think things through.

  • What is of greatest importance is to have objectives, and a strategy for achieving those objectives.

It is ridiculous to try to say before the game has started what your fifth play of the third quarter should be. But it is not ridiculous to say in advance what your third quarter strategy will be. Andy Grove's method of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) captures this simplicity by keeping the focus on objectives, a loose strategy and sub-objectives (Key Results) for getting where you want to go. It can also be wise to conduct a premortem, as described by Kahneman, to brainstorm in advance all the things that might happen to kill your enterprise.

In summary, we want to plan and think ahead, to consider what pitfalls we might encounter and to set objectives and a strategy, but figuring out every detail in advance may not be time well spent.

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