The end of the path along Redhill/Storeton
Image by jimmedia via Flickr

We’re all taught that we need a plan — a business plan, a marketing plan, a project plan, a strategic plan. Plans are the backbone of rational business decision-making and solid execution.Without a plan, how can one ever hope to succeed?

However, in a high-churn, high-change environment like modern publishing, in which innovation is a daily activity, plans can lose their value in fairly short order. The e-book plan of three years ago is probably nearly irrelevant now. The video plan of two years ago is getting creaky. The content distribution approaches of five years ago don’t reflect major pertinent developments.

Plans can create a falsely bounded reality — that is, by reducing reality to a set of discrete actions and steps, new information, new ideas, and new competitors are muffled or excluded. The plan defines reality, instead of reality defining the plan. The longer the plan takes to execute, the greater the risk of this plancentric blindness. At their worst, plans can backfire, damaging their adherents by trapping them in approaches that sounded good at the time, but have since been overcome by events.

I’ve always been a proponent of the path approach to innovation and execution. The path approach differs from the plan approach in key ways:

  • The path approach requires the champion to remain centrally involved, while the plan invites the champion to disengage once the plan is documented.
  • The path invites new information and ideas, sometimes forcing the team to scramble, while the plan isolates the team from these things.
  • The path keeps people’s minds alive and alert, while a plan puts them to sleep while it railroads them into execution.
  • The path allows creative solutions to emerge naturally, while the plan forces all the creativity to occur at inception, a very unlikely situation.

While some people intuitively understand the path approach, those who don’t can view it as a source of wasted effort and soft-headed thinking. There isn’t a lot of authority-based teaching confirming its value, and it’s not part of business school indoctrination. Despite these challenges, I think path work is precisely the opposite of wasteful and soft-headed — it makes people think more, you get better results, and while the effort may not be straightforward, it is usually more successful because it incorporates late-developing requirements and creative solutions.

This distinction hit me recently when I was asking a colleague about a project. It’s not a big project, it’s not a small project, and it has a number of uncertainties to it, including the timeline. Its success depends on a whole host of factors, many of which are not under our control.

At that moment, my colleague and I could have insisted that we make a plan. In so doing, we probably would have limited our flexibility, constrained our patience, and cut out creativity. Instead, we agreed that we will work on a path forward — we can see the destination, but the route there will be figured out as we move from tree to tree, boulder to boulder.

We will make a set of plans along the path, and may ultimately come up with a long-term plan. Plans, in my mind, are what you make along the path. The path is not the route through a plan.

Paths require more communication and collaboration, and that means checking in often and effectively. Again, these are admirable practices in my book. Plans often engender disengagement and drift, with less accountability before it’s too late to recover gracefully from mistakes or oversights.

Certainty and clarity are often illusions created by the comfort of plans. In today’s world, the only certainty is uncertainty, the only clarity is that we’ll have to stay on our toes.

At least, that seems to be the path we’re on right now.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


15 Thoughts on "Plan vs. Path — Which Is Better for Innovation?"

This is agile development as applied to the business process rarther than the technical process isn’t it?

Yes, exactly. I’ve recently been thinking that even strategic plans and business plans need shorter time horizons and quick-turn plans in order to be realistic. They all seem to run out of gas faster these days. That’s not to say that strategic goals and business outcomes can’t be ambitious or audacious or durable. But the path to achieving them can’t be presumed to be smooth and predictable. Instead, it’s full of surprises.

“Planning is a centerpiece of corporate behavior,” (as you said in your abstract).

Curiously, planning is also the centerpiece of communist economies, (aka “centrally planned economies”), – in particular the former Soviet Union – in contrast to market economies, which are analogous to what you describe as ‘path’.

I say this not to detract from your point that the ‘path’ approach is vital, but to wonder where we will end up now that some corporations are larger and more powerful than countries. Will they go the way of the Soviet Union?

Large firms do very little central planning. Planning is done within business units at a relatively fine level. Unlike central social planning, these units need to do very little coordination.

It is not a choice, because traditional planning simply does not work in an externally (or “issue driven”) environment. I did research on this case, which I call “chaos management,” for a decade. See essays 2-4 at

Planning has to be done because that is how people know what to do. Planning coordinates collaboration. But it must be done differently when there is a high expectation of near term change. So the first step is to estimate that expectation, which I call the “novelty index.” When novelty is high planning detail should drop off quickly with time. Don’t make detailed plans for unpredictable events.

However, path finding is difficult, frustrating and expensive, which must be planned for. There is a lot of back tracking and wasted effort. One actually does more planning because one is constantly re-planning. Agility is expensive.

“Agility is expensive.” I think agility appears to be more expensive because it captures some opportunity costs as direct costs. But it also pays off in multiple ways — bigger “wins” when it works, fewer unbooked opportunity costs that end up as costly competition you’re not able to anticipate or address, and greater overall capabilities in the core business. Path finding is difficult, but planning is more difficult in a high-change environment, and planning is fraught with hidden costs and secret vulnerabilities the planning process insulates planners from.

So while agility may book more of the environmental expenses and portions of opportunity costs, thereby appearing more expensive, you’re also buying insurance against the future at the same time, placing smarter bets, and preventing competition from blind spots.

We do not disagree. The cost of trying to do traditional planning in a changing context is failure, which is an indirect cost. My point (and I implement chaos management systems) is that to be agile there are significant additional costs that have to be budgeted for. You can’t just make a plan and follow it, as you are frequently re-planning, which means gathering new information, changing work assignments, scrapping work done, etc.

Thanks for clarifying. I couldn’t tell if we agreed or not, but now it’s clear. Yes, I agree that while agility requires a little more muscle in the budget, it also gets more done.

And to add on the costs – total cost to ownership of the project. Agile in software works because it better manages the risk of building an unwanted thing, or being unable to change direction if circumstances change. Applying the same approach to business context should deliver similar results. At least, that’s the test. I’d add one other thing. Agile brings transparency. Brutal transparency.

I love it: “Agile brings transparency. Brutal transparency.” I have a new favorite quote. Thanks!

Technically being agile means getting less done than in a traditional project, because of all the false step. But hopefully what it gets done is ultimately right, which is unlikely with a traditional planning approach in a changing setting.

This is not an ideological issue. The point is that the planning approach has to fit the reality of the situation. The right tool for the job. Traditional planning works in a controlled setting, like manufacturing, where it was first developed. An issue driven, rapidly changing situation requires agility, but agility is itself a management method. It is not just letting everyone run loose.

As for the more budget muscle, the art is in correctly estimating how big a budget needs to be in an agile situation. You can’t just say to management “well, we are going to spend a bunch of money and take a long time and hopefully something will work out in the long run because we are agile.” The agility planning has to be fairly specific. Management has to understand why the budget is as big as it is and why you are going to be making a lot of mistakes. This is often the hardest part.

To continue a bit on the agility budget issue, here is the quantitative example that got me thinking about this issue many years ago. It has to do with construction projects, not business projects, but the logic is universal.

When you build a chemical plant there is a project phase called “commissioning and startup (C&S).” It begins when construction is complete (so you can first fire up the plant) and it ends when you can reliably produce the intended product. This phase can be difficult, so the question is what fraction of the project budget to allocate to it?

Some MIT folks determined that there is a correlation between the novelty of the process and the cost of C&S. If you are replicating something you have built several times before, perhaps with some minor innovations, it is say 10% of total project cost. If you are scaling up a prototype for the first time it may be 50%. That is, even though the plant is completely built you are only half way home. This is what I call the novelty index of the project.

It is not a question of contingency planning, in the sense of thinking about what may go wrong and planning for that. It is a matter of expecting unexpected things to go wrong and having the time, people and money to deal with them.

These are difficult concepts to implement. Simply put, you are managing deliberate confusion, deliberate in the sense that you jumped in expecting it.

University presses, as scholarly publishers, exist within larger institutional contexts that require them to conform to the practices of the whole institution. This typically means that presses are obliged to prepare strategic plans of three- to five-years duration because that is what their parent institutions demand. They also must report their finances via a cash-accounting method whereas accrual accounting makes better sense for a publishing business. What this means is that presses often lead two lives: the “official” life required by institutional mandates, and the unofficial life that survival as a business requires.

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