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.