Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 37;   September 9, 2020:

Seven Planning Pitfalls: II

by

Plans are well known for working out differently from what we intended. Sometimes, the unintended outcome is due to external factors over which the planning team has little control. Two examples are priming effects and widely held but inapplicable beliefs.
Larix gmelinii forest

Larix gmelinii forest. Siberians call this condition "drunken forest." Before the permafrost began to melt, all the trees were upright, with no trees aggressively invading others' spaces. But as permafrost melts, it melts unevenly, causing subsurface gradients in its ability to bear the weight of the trees. This is the result.

The trees had a "plan" — they had spaced themselves relatively evenly, and they had agreed on which way was "up." We can view the melting of the permafrost as an external factor that disrupted the trees' plan. Photo by Jon Ranson, NASA Science blog. Courtesy Wikimedia.

Teams engaged in formulating complex plans — for projects, marketing efforts, product rollouts, or even entire enterprises — tend to focus on controlling what they have the ability to control. They devise schedules, allocate resources, craft messages, and identify and manage risks. Attending to these factors is right and appropriate. But there are other elements in this world that are beyond the planning team's ability to control or even to influence significantly. And these factors can defeat the most carefully constructed plans, or they can cause the planning team to produce a plan that's inherently unworkable. Two examples of external factors that affect the planning process are priming effects and widely held but inapplicable beliefs.

Priming effects
Consider the chartering process. Chartering an effort, whether or not formally acknowledged as such, is the process that leads to agreement between the leaders of the organization and the leaders of the effort. That agreement provides a basis for the organization to allocate to the effort agreed-upon resources, in exchange for the team producing agreed-upon deliverables, with an agreed-upon level of quality, according to an agreed-upon timeline. When the planning team constructs a plan, it does so with the charter in mind. And at that juncture, external factors can enter and cause planning teams to produce unworkable plans.
Here's one way it can happen. Typically, organizational leaders have in mind their hopes for levels of required resources (R), capabilities of deliverables (C), levels of quality (Q), and timeline (T). If they ask planners questions of the form, "…what would it take to get me something that can do C?", the planners can produce an unbiased answer.
But often, organizational leaders somehow manage to communicate their RCQT targets to the planners. Then planners go off and produce a plan that meets the RCQT targets, more or less. In other words, knowing in advance the "right answer" for the plan tends to bias the planners. This bias can be benign if the targets set forth by the organizational leaders are within a reasonable range of practical values.
Unfortunately, that situation is uncommon. Typically, organizational leaders try to bias plans in their favor by setting targets that they know (or should know) are at the edge of the attainable range, if not beyond it.
Nevertheless, planners do try to produce plans Priming is an external factor that
can compromise the integrity of the
planning process, thereby elevating
the likelihood of planning teams
producing unworkable plans
that meet the RCQT targets. And they convince themselves that the impossible is possible. They do so without realizing that their objectivity has been compromised. What's at work here are a number of cognitive biases known collectively as priming effects.
We are primed to respond to a particular situation in a particular way when a prior stimulus has influenced our thinking or perceptions. So when an organizational leader suggests that he or she might entertain a proposal for a project "if you can give me something that meets my RCQT targets," then we are "primed" to find a solution that meets RCQT. Sometimes we find solutions that aren't actual solutions, because of our overwhelming desire to meet the targets. And when that happens, it's common for planners to be unaware that their judgment has been compromised by their desire.
In this way, priming is an external factor that can compromise the integrity of the planning process, thereby elevating the likelihood of planning teams producing unworkable plans. Organizational leaders can limit this risk by asking planners to produce a range of plans for different combinations of R, C, Q, and T, while giving planners the freedom to trade aspects of one for aspects of the others.
Widely held but inapplicable beliefs
Widely held beliefs circulate in social groups in many forms, such as fads, dogma, regulations, and traditions. These beliefs can be based on evidence and reason. But many beliefs about how to plan aren't based on evidence at all. Others perhaps once were believed to be valid, but were actually based on mistaken interpretations of available data. Still others were once applicable, but have been overtaken by technological change. And some regulations, though once relevant and helpful, might be protecting us from troubles that no longer arise, or which cannot arise in the current context.
Consider this example of a clash between regulations and practice. Many organizations have adopted product development processes that incorporate the principles of agile development. But these same organizations continue to use quarterly or annual fiscal calendars to drive enterprise planning. The two planning processes — agile for development and calendar-driven for finance — are fundamentally incompatible in many respects.
The focus on calendar-based enterprise planning is realistic. It's far from an irrational fixation. There are laws, regulations, and accounting rules that constrain enterprises to produce calendar-based projections and reports. These external factors compel teams to produce plans that address concerns arising not only from the needs of the effort itself, but also from those externally imposed legal, financial, and regulatory constraints.
Successful planning within organizations that are employing agile methods for product development probably depends on finding an approach to integrating agile methods with the more conventional calendar-driven plans imposed by external constraints. One possibility is to use agile methods for the individual elements of product portfolios, and then rely on the statistics of the portfolio to produce results compatible with the needs of fiscal management.

In Part III of this exploration, we'll move from external factors to internal factors associated with the way we think. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Seven Planning Pitfalls: III  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenGBFYqdeDxZESDSsjner@ChacmtFQZGrwOdySPdSsoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:

Daffodils of the variety Narcissus 'Barrett Browning'Self-Serving Bias in Organizations
We all want to believe that we can rely on the good judgment of decision makers when they make decisions that affect organizational performance. But they're human, and they are therefore subject to a cognitive bias known as self-serving bias. Here's a look at what can happen.
An actual bandwagon in a circus paradeCognitive Biases and Influence: I
The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support.
Winston Churchill in the Canadian Parliament, December 30, 1941The Trap of Beautiful Language
As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus.
The Bay of Pigs, CubaSeven More Planning Pitfalls: II
Planning teams, like all teams, are susceptible to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Three of these most relevant to planners are False Consensus, Groupthink, and Shared Information Bias.
Assembling an IKEA chairSeven More Planning Pitfalls: III
Planning teams, like all teams, are vulnerable to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Two of these relevant to planners are a cognitive bias called the IKEA Effect, and a systemic bias against realistic estimates of cost and schedule.

See also Cognitive Biases at Work and Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost on attempted entry into Mars orbitComing March 10: On Repeatable Blunders
When organizations make mistakes, they sometimes acknowledge them and learn how to avoid repeating them. And sometimes they conceal them or even deny they happened. When they conceal mistakes or deny they occurred, repetition is more likely. Available here and by RSS on March 10.
A U.S. 100-dollar bill made into a jigsaw puzzleAnd on March 17: Facts, Opinions, Estimates, and Desires
One reason why resource allocation debates can become so difficult is confusion about the differences among facts, opinions, estimates, and desires. Clarifying their differences can reduce the length and intensity of resource allocation debates. Available here and by RSS on March 17.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenGBFYqdeDxZESDSsjner@ChacmtFQZGrwOdySPdSsoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.