Can you give yourself permission to change the plan?

In this week’s Weekly Inspection, we consider the consequences of spending too much time on your plans and designs.

I often find myself talking with software development leaders about emergent planning, the idea that we don’t have to plan the entire project up-front before we start developing.

While many leaders seem to grasp right away, others cling to the notion that detailed, up-front planning enables them to control the process. They’re haunted by thoughts of “if we just spent a little more time planning the last project, we wouldn’t have failed.”

Let me just get this out there: planning is a good thing. The act of developing a plan helps establish and reinforce the vision. It’s a good exercise for drawing out the major risk factors involved in embarking on the project. It’s a good tool for setting initial and ongoing expectations.

Spending a lot of time on planning, however, is not a good thing. We tend to cherish the things we carefully craft. We protect them. We fall in love with them. We certainly don’t change them. We spent all that time working on the plan, how could it possibly be wrong?

This condition afflicts design and architecture as well. When we’re so convinced that we have the “right” design, it’s hard for us to imagine changing it.

Here’s the problem: plans change. As German military strategist Helmuth Von Moltke said (as did an ex-boss of mine), “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. When we’re proud of our plans, we resist changing them. But what are we proud of? The best plans are good because of their adaptability, not their accuracy. We should be proud of how easily we can adapt the plan we created, not how closely the plan accounted for all of the unforeseen circumstances no one could have predicted.

When we focus on the adaptability of a plan, good things happen: we spend less effort working on the plan and more effort working on the solution. We find ourselves resisting change less often and embracing change more. Our solution more effectively achieves the goal the product set out to achieve.

Are you in love with your plan?

Have an idea for the weekly inspection? I’d love to hear it – @johnkrewson

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