Today, on Harvard Business Review Online, Peter Bregman argues: why not having a plan can be the best plan of all.

Of course, this is just the latest salvo in a long-running battle between the traditionalists – for whom no plan is ever detailed enough – and the now generation – who see planning as getting in the way of making a fortune or two and still getting home in time for some work-life balance.

Bregman, obviously, sides with the latter camp, citing Mark Zuckerberg (who else?) as his first exhibit in his case for the negative position.

Now, you could argue that such jousting is innocent enough. Few might seriously consider adopting the extreme position promoted by either side.

But the danger, to my mind, is that the debate tends to deflect from serious consideration of the nature of planning: and this consideration can yield some interesting ideas.

False alternative

What we have here is a dilemma. The proposition is that, in order to execute effectively, we must both plan and not plan.

Because contradictions don’t exist in reality, we know, right away, that we are proceeding from a false assumption here somewhere.  The assumption is that plans come in one size only (and I think both sides of this debate like to conjure-up plans of the infinitely-detailed variety!).

If we challenge this assumption, we can posit a new proposition: in order to execute effectively, we must plan to the appropriate level of granularity.

Here’s where things get interesting. How, then, does one determine the level of granularity that is fit for purpose?

Uncertainty and granularity

I propose that there’s an inverse relationship between uncertainty and granularity.

In other words, the greater the degree of uncertainty the less granular the plan.

Take Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook journey.  It’s false to suggest that he started work without a plan.

In the complete absence of a plan, there’s no work; just undirected action (a random walk).  There must have been a plan – an implicit one, perhaps. At a minimum, there was a goal and some necessary conditions. No doubt the goal was to do something cool – most likely, something with commercial potential. And, at least one of the necessary conditions is obvious, considering Zuckerberg’s special talent. It had to involve software.

In Zuckerberg’s situation, such a plan would have been sufficient, in terms of granularity.

But as Facebook has developed – and uncertainty diminished – Zuckerberg’s plans have undoubtedly become more detailed.

Uncertainty and cycle time

So far, so good.

Let’s add another dimension, now: planning cycle time. In other words, at what frequency should plans be revised?

I propose that uncertainty is the driver here too. And again, we’re dealing with an inverse relationship. Greater uncertainty means a shorter planning cycle time.

So if we imagine the evolution of a business.

On day, one, plans are expansive and devoid of detail:

Find a business opportunity that generates a decent return on sweat equity – with growth potential and minimal risk. Commence by running limited tests of the following ideas …

The planning cycle-time would be measured in weeks. A smart entrepreneur might make a list of 10 ideas, create a landing-page for each (offering a free copy of a commercially available book – with appropriate subject matter), and then run a series of AdWords advertisements to see which generates the greatest number of book requests.

Once the entrepreneur identifies an idea that appears to have legs, the next step might be to write a whitepaper and repeat the campaign with more focused content – perhaps testing to see if it is possible to attract delegates to a webinar.

It’s easy to see that as the uncertainty decreases the planning horizon expands and the granularity of each plan increases.

The plan / don’t plan debate is a silly distraction. If there’s goal-directed action, there’s a plan. The real questions should be: at what level of granularity should I plan? And, at what frequency should the plan be revised?


By the way, if you like this subject, Google Colonel John Boyd and read about his amazing career and the planning tool he made famous (the OODA loop).