Exploring the future

18 Jun

Some people tell me I plan too much and others that I plan too little. I think this is either because people have differing attitudes towards planning or because they understand meaning of the word differently. The fact is however, we all think about the future sometimes. This blog post is about how I like to think about it.

Why we do not like to plan

A lot of people do not like to plan. Some are afraid that they will make great plans which the reality might not live up to and that they will be disappointed afterwards. So in order to avoid this disappointment, a negative gap between their expectations and the reality, they choose not to make any plans in the first place. Others are afraid that once they make a plan, they will be restricted by it and will feel obliged to execute it at all costs. So in order to not lose this perceived flexibility, they do not make any plans as well. There are also some people who simply do not care about their future even though I would like to believe this is just a minority.

The first two reasons why people do not like to plan make sense and are very close to human nature. None of us want to regret, be disappointed or feel restricted. And all these feelings are indeed bound to occur if we understand planning as a prescriptive activity and plans as a clear statement of what has to happen in the future. Plans then became a form of commitment we have either internally with ourselves or, if we share our plans publicly, with others. There are certainly benefits to making commitments in this way – our increased motivation to work hard or extra predictability for others. But there are also two crucial limitations which make prescriptive planning a lot less attractive proposition at least when it comes to our personal lives.

The first limitation is that for the reasons mentioned above, people often end up not making any plans at all. They then get trapped in their status quo even though they could have improved their situation had they acted with a bit of foresight. The second limitation is that most of the issues we are faced with are complex and unpredictable ones. It is therefore not the best idea to make a fixed plan of what has to happen over the next year or so using only our past knowledge. The circumstances are likely to change, we are likely to learn new things and figure out better ways of getting to where we want to be or realize that we actually want to do something else all together. I therefore like to think about planning only as of a guide to action and a platform to explore what can happen in the future.

Planning as a road trip

A good metaphor would be a road trip. Let’s say we want to explore the Europe by car over the next three weeks. One can approach planning such trip in three ways. A prescriptive planner would do a precise itinerary of where we should go each day, how long we can stay there for and what we should do there. If we get to like some place a lot and would like to stay there couple extra days, it is not possible because it would mess up the whole plan. If one road would be closed down and we would have to take a long detour, we might not get to see our final destination because we will simply run out of time.

People who do not plan at all would just start driving, see places along the way and decide every morning where they want to go. While this sounds attractive, they might miss out on most of the sites they wanted to see because they will not know how to get there. Once their holiday is over and they have to fly back home, they might realise they spent the whole time driving around one country as opposed to seeing Europe as they originally wanted to do. They might not even go for the trip at all as they might be afraid they would get lost and will therefore stay at home. I have seen both of these approaches to planning before and they unfortunately leave people disappointed at the end of the day usually.

This is why I propose a third approach. Sticking with the road trip example, we explore what all there is to do in Europe and compile a basic list of things we would like to see and do. We accept the fact that this list is incomplete because we can learn about Europe only so much before we actually get there. We know we will come across some extra place as we go along. We also look at driving distances between the places and for how long we would like to stay at each place so we get an idea of how much we can realistically manage to see.

The objectives of planning are not to make a fixed plan. They are rather to give us comfort that we know what we can do, should we decide to do it and to inform our future decision making. If we get to like one place and want to stay there longer, we will know that we can do so but that we will not be able to see another place in that case – it allows us to make educated trade-offs.

The very fact that we make a plan, gives us a level of comfort and self confidence that we can manage the trip and allows to set into action (e.g. book the plane tickets). This is very important as a lot of people never get to make the first step towards achieving something. Once we land, we can start executing the plan but we also know we can change it any time should we find a shorter way of getting to where we want to go or should decide to go somewhere else.

Planning in this sense is therefore not a prescriptive exercise but rather an exploration of what all can happen in the future. Since the future is uncertain, we can also make various scenarios (e.g. what to do on a sunny day or on a rainy day). At Shell, where scenario planning was pioneered nearly half a decade ago, they view scenarios as ‘tools which help leaders prepare for futures that might happen, rather than the future they would like to create’ (Living in the Futures, HBR, May 2013).

Once we start thinking this way, we often realise that in order to achieve something in the future, we need to do something today or within the next couple of weeks (e.g. to apply for visa on time before our departure date so that we can board the plane). A lot of people have to compromise on their dreams because they realise only too late that they missed out on something. By setting ourselves into action today, we also get better prepared to capitalise on opportunities we might come across in the future. Our plan is often unlikely to work out as intended but because we had a goal and we were working towards it before, that work might pay off now to achieve something even better that what was our original goal.

The point of this blog post was to change people’s perceptions towards planning and to understand it not as a restrictive but a liberating activity. Planning as an exploration gives us the confidence to get moving, makes us appreciate what needs to be done to get where we want to go and allows us to change our plans for the better as we go along because we are able to evaluate consequences of our decisions and therefore make good trade-offs.

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