Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 26;   June 24, 2020: The Planning Dysfunction Cycle

The Planning Dysfunction Cycle


Some organizations consistently choose not to allocate enough resources or time to planning for their most complex undertakings. Again and again, they decline to plan carefully enough despite the evidence of multiple disappointments and chaotic performance. Resource contention and cognitive biases conspire to sustain this cycle of dysfunction.
Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, in an illustration by Sidney Paget, captioned "Holmes gave me a sketch of the events." The illustration was originally published in 1892 in The Strand magazine to accompany a story called The Adventure of Silver Blaze by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is in this story that the following dialog occurs:

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."

Holmes: "That was the curious incident."

From this, Holmes deduces that the dog's master was the villain. This is an example of Holmes' overcoming a cognitive bias I refer to here as absence blindness.

Original book illustration, courtesy Wikimedia.

Some organizations seem to be constitutionally averse to planning for complex projects. They do sometimes plan simple projects, informally, but for projects sufficiently large or complex, they don't plan well at all. Their plans are generally shoddy and ineffective; when they do produce plans, their people lack the patience to execute those plans effectively; and people who actively advocate for planning find themselves cast as disloyal empire-builders. Worse, those who advocate for risk planning are cast as cynical pessimists. Periodically, these planning-averse organizations must confront their addiction to brashness, usually after an exceptionally disappointing and stressful project experience. Haphazard attempts to plan do follow, but no plan survives for long before the next shortsighted, haphazard plan displaces it.

These are the observable characteristics of the planning dysfunction cycle. How does it arise? What sustains it?

To answer questions like these about systems involving people, it's useful to separate investigations of the origin of the situation from investigations of its sustenance, because the two dynamics can be so different. So let me focus for now on the question of sustenance. Given the trail of disappointing results, what keeps the cycle going? Why do these organizations fail to adopt more sensible and effective approaches to planning?

What follows are conjectures about planning deficiencies for large, complex projects. For those projects, planning well is necessary for success. And for those projects, planning well is truly difficult. Four phenomena provide energy for the planning dysfunction cycle.

Planning and doing are in tension
Because planning requires effort and takes time, planning and doing are in tension with each other. Planning defers doing. Planning consumes resources that doing requires. Whatever might be happening, whatever the situation, planning delays action. The urge to "get on with it" can be overwhelming. Whether the sense of urgency arises from fear of calamity or from a desire to exploit a rare opportunity, resisting a call to action can be far more difficult than resisting a call to plan.
Succumbing prematurely to the call to action ensures the incompleteness of the plan, and elevates the probability of failure.
We incur the costs of planning now, but we receive its benefits later
The difference between the arrival time of the cost of planning and the arrival time of the benefits of planning creates a challenge for advocates of planning. That challenge is related to hyperbolic discounting, a cognitive bias affecting decisions about choices between items that arrive at different times.
Humans value items according to their arrival times. An item arriving in the near future is worth more than an identical item arriving in the more distant future. But the perceived difference in values of these two items favors the early arrival more than is justified by the difference in arrival times. A time-consistent valuation would assign a constant percentage value discount per unit of time delay. That form of discounting is called exponential discounting.
Many careful experiments have demonstrated that humans inherently use a different discounting pattern known as hyperbolic discounting. [Laibson 1997] In hyperbolic discounting, the value assigned to early-arriving items exceeds what would be assigned by exponential discounting. In the context of deciding how carefully to plan, we therefore tend to overvalue near-term costs compared to long-term benefits. Thus hyperbolic discounting causes us to view planning (incorrectly) as costing more than it is worth.
The benefits of planning are less evident than its costs
The benefits of careful planning often appear in the form of troubles that don't arise, disasters that don't happen, or expenses that don't need to be expended. Therefore many of the benefits of planning aren't directly observable. By contrast, the costs of planning in terms of effort and delay are directly observable.
Even when When we focus only on what's here,
we can fail to notice what isn't here
we're in the midst of experiencing the benefits of planning, we tend not to notice them because of a cognitive bias called absence blindness. [Kaufman 2010] Absence blindness is a cognitive bias that causes us to tend not to notice what isn't there, or what doesn't happen, even if the item we don't notice is usually present or usually occurs. When a project runs smoothly, absence blindness causes us not to notice that troubles aren't occurring. Because the benefits of planning are less evident than are its costs, we tend to overvalue planning costs compared to planning benefits.
All plans are imperfect
However carefully we plan complex projects, we can't anticipate everything that can go wrong, and our knowledge of what needs to be accomplished is probably incomplete. Inevitably, we find imperfections in our plans. We need to backtrack to redo some things, and we eventually realize that other things we did were unnecessary.
People who oppose the advocates of planning see these imperfections in plans as evidence of the rightness of their position. Moreover, because of a cognitive bias called confirmation bias, they seek out these incidents. When they find them, they feel that their arguments are validated. They point to the relative absence, by comparison, of benefits of planning. In doing so, they usually fail to recognize that absence blindness and confirmation bias have led them to overlook many planning benefits. Since their comparison of the relative importance of the planning imperfections and hazards avoided is unscientific, their conclusions are invalid, but weighty nevertheless.

These four phenomena combine synergistically to reinforce a view that careful planning is grossly overvalued. That synergy generates comments like these:

  • We've done enough planning. We now see clearly enough how the work will go. Let's get started. More planning will cost more money and only delay the work.
  • It's true that if we invest in careful planning, we'll probably have a better project experience. But how much better? The improvement won't justify additional planning costs, and it will just delay the effort. The last time we had a pretty decent plan, it turned out to be a waste of effort, because the project went so smoothly, no problems at all. What a waste.
  • Don't you remember what happened with the project before that one? We thought we had planned enough. Some of us thought we over-planned. They might have been right, too, because even though we thought we had a good plan, we still had trouble. The return on investment for planning is too low and too unpredictable.

These arguments, bogus though they might be, are powerful indeed. Overcoming the urge to "get on with it" is difficult, but overcoming the urge is easier when we understand how our own thought processes work against us. Go to top Top  Next issue: On Standing Aside  Next Issue

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsProjects never go quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it? How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts is filled with tips for executives, senior managers, managers of project managers, and sponsors of projects in project-oriented organizations. It helps readers learn the subtle cues that indicate that a project is at risk for wreckage in time to do something about it. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just . Order Now! .


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Laibson 1997]
David Laibson. "Golden eggs and hyperbolic discounting," Quarterly Journal of Economics 112:2 (1997), 443-477. Available here; Retrieved 25 October 2018. Back
[Kaufman 2010]
Josh Kaufman. The personal MBA: Master the art of business. Penguin, 2010. Order from Amazon. Back

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