planning is useless

Whenever an organization is faced with challenges that require many people to move in a different direction, change their behavior, adjust their attitudes, or alter their thinking, the first thing that management wants to put in place is leadership. They always believe that with the proper top-down inspiration, instruction, and oversight, it will drive the desired results. They believe this model scales hierarchically.

I don’t believe it’s true of problems for which the organization does not have experience and expertise. The more technical and schedule risk that a project incurs because of greater unknowns, the less helpful project planning is. The ability to plan relies on a degree of analysis and design. Without relevant experience to help speculate on how to implement something, planning must happen in ignorance. The plans are meaningless, because actual implementation experience will likely invalidate those plans and designs. Unfortunately, the natural reaction is to spend more time and effort getting those plans right, as the plan goes off track with execution. The more right you try to make it, the worse that situation becomes, as the organization invests more in a futile activity, and less in activities that actually achieve the result. A “learning organization” is what is needed, not one that assumes it knows (or more importantly “can know”) what it’s doing without having done it yet.

The idea of “spontaneous order” is appealing, but that requires all participants to behave rationally with the right signals, so they can work things out among themselves. In large engineering organizations, this does not seem to work, because the communications channels are too narrow, the number of participants too great, and the volume and complexity of knowledge that must be exchanged is too vast. Individuals become too overwhelmed and cannot keep up. Management structures are inevitably put in place to introduce controls and gatekeepers. Whereas chaos is too noisy and incoherent, the imposition of order destroys knowledge pathways from forming spontaneously.

I’m left wondering if there are methods that facilitate spontaneous order. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are great motivators in the abstract, but they don’t easily translate into concrete methods and tools. I noticed that Facebook has started implementing a system like for helping edit location information, where it awards points, badges, and levels. Such systems really do provide users with a motivation to achieve the measured outcome. I’m wondering if gamification is a superior way to achieve outcomes.

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