Holey planning

The future belongs to creativity; our knowledge belongs to the past. If this is true, how does the presently successful business prepare to be even more successful in the future? A short answer is: With great difficulty.

The knowledge we have built over our years in our business has given us the raw material for our master plan (that may include a mission statement, strategies, operating plans and budgets). Of course it makes good sense to keep doing what we have done successfully, and working to a plan keeps the many people who work for us “on the same page.”

But, given the way things change and the fact that not everything has been invented yet, someone, somewhere, is going to turn the page and create a new way of doing business or even a different way of conceiving the business that we thought we knew completely. If we are not the ones to turn the page, we will be the ones to fall behind.

It is said that in business there are no good surprises (I have said so myself). Once we have carefully put together a plan based on our best knowledge (of the past), the plan takes on an authority of its own. Ideas that do not meet the test of the plan are rejected. Ideas are surprises. And surprises are an affront to the authority of the plan.

The problem with ideas is that their origination cannot be controlled. You can include companywide brainstorming sessions in your planning process and, the day after the plan is in print, something stimulates an idea that beats all the rest. “Idea-making does not necessarily progress progressively,” wrote Jerry Hirshberg in The Creative Priority: Driving Innovative Business in the Real World (Harper, 1998). The very definition of creativity wrote psychologist Jerome Bruner is “an act that produces effective surprise — this I take as the hallmark of the creative enterprise” (On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand, Harvard University Press, 1962).

The challenge for a company that wants to assert creative leadership is: how to plan in a way that minimizes the suppression of creative thought while still guiding the enterprise toward agreed objectives. The solution is “holey planning” — not so much a different way of planning as a different way of thinking about the plan.

Holey planning needs to maintain a good memory of why and how the plan was made. When new situations and/or new ideas arise, holey planning is quick to reexamine its assumptions and to engage the same resources in revising the plan as had been engaged to create it.

The holey plan is endowed by its creators with a certain modesty and a forgiving character so that it does not frighten off every effective surprise that might occur.

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