Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 27;   July 7, 2021: Time to Let Go of Plan A

Time to Let Go of Plan A

by

We had a plan. It was a good one. Our plan seemed to work for a while. But then troubles began. And now things look very bleak. But people can't let go of the plan. For some teams in this situation, there isn't a Plan B. For others, Plan B is a secret.
A hang glider pilot taking off

A hang glider pilot taking off. The runway is actually a "run" way.

Some teams encounter insurmountable obstacles as they try to execute their plans. They nevertheless persist. When teams have difficulty abandoning — or even revising — their original plans, a natural question arises. Why can they not let go of Plan A? One possible reason why people might be reluctant to let go of Plan A is that there is no Plan B. The question then becomes, "Why is there no Plan B?"

Some people are averse to creating a Plan B, on principle. They cite a saying often attributed to hang glider pilots, "Don't look where you don't want to land." Presumably this applies mostly to hang glider landing maneuvers. In the context of projects, several interpretations are possible. Example #1: "Pay attention to where you want to land. Time you spend looking elsewhere is time you can't get back." To me, that seems like wisdom.

But another interpretation I've heard, which I regard as more questionable in value, is Example #2: "Looking at backup landing sites reduces the chances of landing where you want to land." Maybe that makes sense for hang gliding. For project planning, it seems like the opposite of wisdom.

Still, There are those who believe
that making backup plans is
tantamount to self-sabotage
there are those who believe that making backup plans is tantamount to self-sabotage. They argue that making backup plans takes time and resources. That time and those resources would have been available for Plan A, if we hadn't allocated them to developing Plan B. Taking them away from Plan A makes Plan A more likely to fail.

The problem with this argument is that it's a general statement. It suggests that all risk management enhances the probability of the managed risks materializing. That seems to me to be false on its face. So for me, having a Plan B doesn't make Plan A more likely to fail.

Another possible explanation for the apparent absence of a Plan B is that there actually is a Plan B, but it's a secret. There are those who believe that if the people who do the work of Plan A knew about Plan B, they might not work as energetically or creatively as needed for Plan A to succeed. Or they might not be willing to make the sacrifices necessary for Plan A to succeed. The advocates of this approach would likely agree with Samuel Johnson, who is credited with the insight that nothing so focuses the mind as the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight. These advocates conclude that keeping Plan B secret is necessary for the success of Plan A.

Sometimes, advocates of secrecy go a bit further. They argue for letting it be known — falsely — that a task force worked long and hard to put together a Plan B. And they failed. The task force found that no Plan B was possible. These advocates of Plan B secrecy believe that this false story will truly "focus the minds" of the Plan A teams.

So these are two reasons why a Plan B might not be available or might not be widely known. But why do people continue to advocate Plan A after it has already encountered serious obstacles, even when a Plan B is available? That's the topic for next time.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Time to Go to Plan B  Next Issue

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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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