“Yes, just make a plan”, or of the inadequacy of human aspiration

At the beginning of the new year, we look back at what we have achieved and at what has remained open. Simultaneously, we make plans for the new year and again take on (far too) many new tasks. The Augsburg-born singer-songwriter, Bert Brecht, dealt with this in his song about the inadequacy of human striving in the Threepenny Opera:

A man lives by the head, the head is not enough for him.
Just try, from your head lives at most a louse.
Because for this live man is not smart enough.
He simply never notices all lies and deception.

Yes, just make a plan, be just a big light!
And then make a second plan, neither one will work.
For this life man isn’t bad enough, but his quest for aspirations is a nice touch.

Yes, only run after happiness, but don’t run too much,
because we all run after happiness and happiness runs behind us.
Because for this life man isn’t unpretentious enough,
So all his strive is only a self-deception.

With planning we want to face the complexity and uncertainty of life. A plan serves to be worked through. In projects, bar charts provide a structure that is easy to follow, gives us security, and assigns clear tasks that we can work through. Plans also certainly help to coordinate the cooperation of several people. A plan creates transparency in terms of what events or tasks await us in the future and arranges our actions in a chronological order. So, we don’t have to worry about anything anymore, we can sit back and relax, because with this plan everything is planned through. What else can happen? Our self-confidence increases and we are convinced that nothing will stand in the way of success when it comes to implementation. Planning makes us invincible. So much for the psychological function of planning. But why do things go wrong so often? Why do we not achieve our goals despite all the planning?

Planning is based on assumptions, hypotheses, and an assessment of future developments. It is highly subjective and usually inadequate. The further planning extends into the future, the less accurate it is. Resulting in greater deviations and subsequent disappointment when we do not achieve our goals. The blame is often placed on the environment. It was not the plan that was wrong, or the person who created the plan, but the developments in the environment, disruptive factors such as politics and certain stakeholders that prevented the plan from being fulfilled. So next time, we plan even more intensively, more precisely and in greater detail in order to succeed… and don’t realize that we are making things much worse.

Does this mean that we should no longer make plans at all? No. However, we should rethink the role of plans and our expectations of them. It is important to recognize that our cognitive abilities are not sufficient to adequately foresee future developments and cover every eventuality with measures. We should again rely more on our intuition in the situation, on our improvisational skills or acting on the opportunity. A plan rather gives the rough direction and is further adapted and updated by the acting persons based on what they do. Thus, a plan is not so much a prescription from above or from outside. A plan is updated through experience and situational learning. Plans are not formulated ex ante, i.e. before they are implemented, but ex nunc, from action through the next steps on the way towards the goal. In this way, we give responsibility for the success of action in projects to those who are assigned to implement them, thus opening up scope for creativity.

But do we want that at all? To take responsibility ourselves and shape our own actions? To respond to the situation and adapt, to go along with dynamics and let ourselves drift in a certain way? That probably doesn’t sound very professional. Rather unstructured and chaotic. With the word project management, we suggest that we have everything under control and that we can achieve goals effectively and efficiently, don’t we? But reality always catches up with us, reminding us that we should be humble and rather that the situation has us “under control”. As with the Japanese art of Jiu Jitsu, it is important to be soft, gentle, flexible, and yielding (“Jiu”) and to adapt our technique, art, method, and skill (“Jitsu”) to the situation at hand. Orientation to a long-term strategy, to experience-based heuristics, principles and values certainly helps more than a detailed plan of all individual actions with deadlines, costs and resources required for them. Berthold Brecht’s song takes a rather pessimistic view of planning. If we go courageously to the conversion of our ideas, then we do not need only the head, which plans our actions ahead, and also not luck, which is an external control. Action is built on our intrinsic motivation, our self-determined action and engagement with the situation, learning and updating our experience in doing. In spirit of this, good luck in the New Year and in upcoming projects.

Author: Reinhard Wagner

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