The Act of Planning vs. Acting on a Plan
My maternal grandfather gave me some of the best life advice I have ever received: “Always have a plan.” Having a plan helps you set your goals and figure out the necessary steps to achieve them. Too often, however, having a plan (or acting on a plan) is confused with the act of planning.
Having a plan is generally a good thing (as long as it’s a good plan anyway). Having a plan keeps your work or life focused and oriented toward some established goal or objective. Planning, however, is more insidious than having a plan. Endless planning can create the illusion of productivity instead of genuine productivity. It is very easy to be stuck in an endless cycle of planning, re-planning, revising a plan, rethinking the plan, and so on, to the point that a plan never becomes actionable or gets off the ground (hence, no productivity).
Endless planning is a vicious cycle that is easy to fall into when making a project plan. After all, if a plan doesn’t yet seem adequate, it makes sense to revise the plan, and revise it again if necessary; revising a plan as needed is indeed rational and logical. There is a difference, however, between an actionable but iterative plan already underway and an unactionable plan that never gets underway because of constant revision and planning.
Project managers sometimes fall into the trap of endless planning not out of ill intent but because of a sense of perfectionism. The problem is that an endless quest for a perfect plan can delay taking any actionable first steps. The quest for a perfect plan can seem productive because of the many artifacts it generates (planning documents, outlines, PowerPoint slides, spreadsheets, cost projections, timelines, meeting invitations, and so on). In fact, project managers who are stuck in an endless cycle of planning usually have quite an impressive array of things to show for their endless planning work.
So if perfectionism and endless planning create the illusion of productivity while remaining largely unproductive, how can you find the balance between making a plan that is tentative and open to revision but still productive and actionable? There are a few things you can do:
- Make sure that the early stages of your project plan contain actionable items that are genuinely productive toward reaching the overall objective of the project. Pro tip: Additional project planning is not in itself a productive action item; make it something concrete.
- Spend more time becoming certain about the early stages of your project plan than about the later stages. The more certain you are about the early stages of your plan, the more likely it is those actionable early steps will be genuinely productive toward the objective of the project.
- Iterate on the later stages of a project plan while the early stages are already underway, based on things you learn from completion of the early stages. Taking actionable first steps while iterating on later stages of a product plan allows you to find the balance between day-to-day productivity and long-term flexibility and agility.
- Get early buy-in from stakeholders but don’t let them hold you back. Getting early support from stakeholders can help ensure that there is broad support for the tentative-but-productive plan you are attempting to formulate. But attempting to make all stakeholders 100 percent happy is yet another form of perfectionism than can keep a plan from being productive and iterative.
- Focus on understanding the relevant problems, and then iterate on the solution. Start small and expand the scope of the plan as needed to solve additional problems or take into account new information you learn along the way.
- Resist the temptation to add more complexity or features to your project plan. Look for things you can remove from the scope of the project instead of things to add in.
Educational technology and instructional design are no strangers to the pitfalls of endless planning. Many a project in our industry has fallen prey to overly ambitious scope, perfectionism, fear of missing the mark, groupthink, and death by meetings. This is particularly true in educational content development. Like writing a novel (or a blog post, for that matter), you can spend so much time planning, outlining, brainstorming, validating, and so on, that you never end up creating the actual content or product, just endlessly planning it.
As you are creating your next project plan, whether large or small, challenge yourself not to get stuck in an endless planning cycle. Don’t just plan; do and create! Start soon and iterate along the way. You may have fewer PowerPoint slides and spreadsheets to show for your project planning work, but you’ll be taking those first productive steps on the long journey toward completion of your project.
Zachary Fruhling is an instructional designer, online educational content author and developer, educational technologist, philosophy instructor, poet, and podcaster with nearly 20 years of experience in higher education and educational content development. See Zachary's website at www.zacharyfruhling.com.