Do you need a plan? Can innovation be planned? Do plans result in happier persons? Does having a plan increase likelihood of success? And what about for loops is so enlightening?
In programming, a for loop is a piece of code that runs another piece of code for a specified number of times. In real life, a habit is something that you do over and over gain until you stop doing it over and over again. for loops are much like everyday habits, or routines. In programming, breaking out of a for loop is as easy as ‘break’ statement; preventing its rerun is as simple as adding or subtracting a single pre-condition (most of the time one action is sufficient). But knowing when a particular for loop is a/The problem is an entirely different matter. In life, breaking a habit is not so easy, and identifying a habit as a problem can be just as difficult as breaking it. It’s our favourite of all problems: The Identification of Problems Problem. Assume for a moment that we are indeed in a simulation — we are lines of code, living in a world constructed by omniscient programmer Gods — and our current understanding of the fundamental and universal roles of processing speed and memory1 is true: in such a world, progress might be as simple as repeatedly breaking out of for loops. One such loop is our approach to planning.
There’s two patent problems with plans, blueprints, fine-tuned strategies, and so on. These problems don’t usually accommodate one another in any obviously tangible manner, but they do inhabit the same ship. The first is that plans necessarily straiten the minds of the executors, which means opportunities or potential pivots are less likely to be noticed — they’re much harder to notice, but even if an opportunity is noticed, the plan doesn’t allow for it even to be investigated. It can be excruciatingly difficult to diverge from plans that have been subject to large investment; time, money and energy spent in the formulation, promotion and execution in their formulation make it difficult to drop or even iterate when signs of inadequacy or need for change come knocking — and rarely they come knocking at the right time. By serving to rigidifying the plan, often under the radar, investment is the ultimate stupefaction mechanism.
An immense amount of time goes into the formulation of a perfect plan. Of course, nobody wants a bad plan — what would be the point in that? It’s completely counter-intuitive. ‘If one is going to make a plan, make a good plan at least. — heck, there might as well be no plan!’ And so companies, the more successful they become, increase their dependency on planning, rationality, calculated execution, computed strategies, and so on — and the less innovative and creative and fun they become. There are definitely exceptions; sometimes the plan is executed to a T and the expected results are achieved. For instance, it’s hard to find biographies, business books and CEO interviews in which weight is given to the absence or deliberate avoidance of plans. But how many of these are true? Imagine the founder of a mightily successful company sitting down for an interview with Time magazine for front-cover reportage. If the interviewee’s narrative isn’t imbued with talk about strategy, planning, calculation, how this and how that happened, then the questions of the interviewer will be. A founder might build a successful company without ever thinking about a plan, but the society wants to know how it was done. Consequently, a plan — usually wrapped within a story — is constructed. The stakes are critically high if the company has a large board and many employees, because what would everyone think if the leader said there was no plan!? There would likely be a drop in the stock price, a public outcry, an overall decline in productivity, a change of leadership arranged, and many other unpleasantries. The leader has absolutely no business telling anyone how things really went down; the incentives are warped. Soon, the leader herself will begin to believe the fancy recount of events, because unlike the truth about the past, memory isn’t permanent.2
Luck is the only reason that a truly creative endeavour succeeds because of a plan. Or a better word might be ‘coincidence’. If a plan exists and achievements had been made, it’s because the plan has either been periodically forgotten or intentionally dropped at critical points on the journey, or it has evolved. The resources poured into planning are far better spent on practical, trial-and-error driven action. It is better to start with no plan or a bad plan than a great or heavily-thought-through plan. When mistakes are inevitably made, obviously bad plans are easy to adjust because there is little personal attachment, less opposition from others, and less risk overall; and when no plan exists, one can at least be started from a better vantage point. The key is to make the plan more accurate (or less bad), not great or perfect or fixed. Even at iterative stages, there exists the risk of getting too involved with the plan. A commitment to spending as little time and energy on plans as possible is critical — because done right, progress looks something like: idea -> execute -> assess -> iterate idea -> execute. This is the creative process, and the means by which anything we admire is produced — novels, movies, paintings, poetry, theatre, music, software, physical laws, mathematical equations that explain the universe, and so forth.
That progress is driven by trial and error is perhaps well-known; what’s less known is how many times the trail-error function must run. Edison said ‘I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that do not work’. Any truthful great artist will tell you how much they throw away. Any person trying to do anything creative will know the pain of trial and error. Prototypes tell us what we don’t know. The upshot is that the journey of a creation from idea to finished product entails umpteen visits back to the drawing board. A creator de facto becomes very familiar with the drawing board, which is why spending more time than necessary at it is a wasteful activity.
Is there ever a place for detailed plans? The probability of a venture being original, creative, groundbreaking, universe-denting or even fun in a space in which a detailed plan can be properly designed is incredibly low. If the definition of ‘detailed plan’ is a good understanding of the problem, obstacles, the resource and personnel requirements, and means embodying elements of certitude, then as strange as it may sound, there is simply too much known information. The place for detailed plans is where no innovation is needed. Innovation and detailed plans are incompatible. Nimbleness, flexibility and rapid-iteration are central tenets to solving the great problems of today, and millennia henceforth.
Planning produces the illusions of progress and certainty and is an easier task than execution; its popularity is not rocket science. If only this were more appreciated, we might today be closer to intergalactic space-travel, cancer cures, and limb-regeneration. Individually and societally, emphasis on planning and strategy must be decreased and acceptance of seemingly irrational decisions and tolerance of risk increased in spaces where new ideas are wanting. And there are many of those spaces.
- Namely: processing speed (or how fast we can absorb and make sense of information), and memory (stored information, accessible as necessary) are the only necessary pre-conditions for the process of creation (turning information into knowledge, ie, something that causes the creation of something else, such as your discovery of a new recipe causing you to make it for dinner) to occur anywhere in the universe. In this sense, their roles are universal.
- ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and — you are the easiest person to fool.’ — Richard Feynman