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Volume 20, Issue 37;   September 9, 2020: Seven Planning Pitfalls: II

Seven Planning Pitfalls: II


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

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When we have a preconceived notion of what conclusion a decision process should produce, we sometimes engage in "motivated reasoning" to ensure that we get the result we want. That's risky enough as it is. But when we do this in relation to a chain of decisions in the context of uncertainty, trouble looms.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
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Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.

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