The futility – and value – of planning

In his recent article Planning is very important…. It doesn’t work, Jack Vinson has this insight into planning:

If they hadn’t planned, there is no chance they would have been able to accomplish what they wanted to do.  At the same time, if they had decided that the plan was exactly what they were going to do, they would have never made it either.

This is a lesson I learned very early on in my military career, and something I wrote about back in March 2005 (has it really been that long?) while digesting the ideas in Malcolm Gladwell’s then-new book Blink.  The following is a slightly edited version of those original thoughts.

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Have been spending a lot of time “adjusting” plans lately. A colleague made the following comment today in one of our many (many many) sessions:

He who plans early, plans twice.

Which got me thinking about the apparent futility, and the obvious value, of planning.

The aphorism “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” is absolutely true. Proper preparation, though, can make that fact largely irrelevant. The very act of planning, and rehearsing that plan, involves preparation that enables you to effectively react to most any situation that may arise. In other words, proper planning allows you to IMPROVISE.

“What?” you say. “Improvise? That’s fine for comedy and music, but military operations? Business? I don’t think so. The whole purpose of planning is so you know what is going to happen, and when it is going to happen. Not to just wing it.”

In an Industrial Age setting, I may have agreed with that. But in the Information Age, I strongly disagree. If you tie yourself too tightly to a plan, and stick to it no matter what, you are doomed to fail.

As an example, consider a football (American) team – or any other team sport, for that matter. It is possible to develop a detailed game plan that dictates every play you will use, and when you will use them in the game. You could make a simple list of plays: On the first play, do this; On the second play, do that. etc. Or you could have a more detailed plan: If it is second and under 5 yards, and we’re in the red zone, we do this. etc. You could even take it a step further and include separate options that take into account the opposition’s activities. Of course, the more contigencies you identify, the bigger the play book you have to carry around and the longer it may take to figure out exactly what to do.

What actually happens is that the team develops a basic game plan ahead of time and rehearses the execution of that plan. By doing this, the focus of the team becomes achieving the goal of winning the game, and not just simply executing the plan.

I was inspired to write this post partly by a few key passages in Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Blink , in which he uses the obvious example of an improv comedy troupe (which in turn cites as one of their references a basketball team) to support the concept of “thin-slicing,” the ability to parse a given situation into the minimum information required to deal with that situation.

Different, not less (or broken)

Tomorrow night HBO will premier the film Temple Grandin:

Starring Claire Danes, Julia Ormond, Catherine O’Hara, and David Strathairn Temple Grandin paints a picture of a young woman’s perseverance and determination while struggling with the isolating challenges of autism at a time when it was still quite unknown.

Temple Grandin and Claire Danes
The film is based on two of Grandin’s books about autism, Emergence: Labeled Autistic (written with Margaret Scariano) and Thinking in Pictures, Expanded Edition: My Life with Autism. Given the typical Hollywood treatment of autism (Rain Man, anyone), I had my doubts – fears, maybe – about how this story would be told. A review of the film in yesterday’s The Atlantic has helped to alleviate those concerns:

Stereotypical characters with autism are a convenient and powerful device for convincing neurotypical people to mend their ways, or for demonstrating the saintliness of the people who put up with them.  These cinematic conceits make HBO’s Temple Grandin, a biopic of the acclaimed animal scientist and autism advocate (to premier on HBO on February 6 at 8 p.m.), particularly remarkable.  From the life of one of the best-known individuals with an autism spectrum disorder, director Mick Jackson has managed to make an utterly original movie about autism, simply by allowing Grandin, portrayed in a stunning performance by Claire Danes, to be the center of her own story.

If you are at all involved in the “autism community”, I know that you will probably be checking out this film. If you are not involved with, or even familiar with, autism, I encourage you to watch this film with an open mind. It may just help you understand the sentiment that those with autism are different, but not less, and are most definitely not broken.

Solitary work genius in the age of tribes and crowd-sourcing

Is there a place for solitary work and achievement in this age of teams, collaboration, KM, social media, crowdsourcing, etc? Can one person still “change the world”, all by themselves?

I wondered about these questions recently as I read James Gleick’s biography of Isaac Newton. To say that Newton was a solitary genius would be to understate his lack of interest in working with, and sharing with, others.

While safely tucked away from the plague infecting England in 1665 – 1666, Newton developed the basics of calculus as well as the foundation of what would become his greatest work, The Principia : Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (which would not be published for many years afterwards).

Newton returned home. He built bookshelves and made a small study for himself. He opened the nearly blank thousand-page commonplace book he had inherited from his stepfather and named it his Waste Book. He began filling it with reading notes. These mutated seemlessly into original research. He set himself problems; considered them obsessively; calculated answers, and asked new questions. He pushed past the frontier of knowledge (though he did not know this). The plague year was his transfiguration. Solitary and almost incommunicado, he became the world’s paramount mathematician.

He also waited 30 years before publishing his “second great work” – Opticks. He designed, built, and used his revolutionary reflecting telescope for over two years before sharing it with anyone. Bottom line, he preferred to work alone and chose not to share the fruits of his labor.  At least not right away.

I’ve long believed that knowledge is an inherently personal thing. Only individuals can come up with great (as opposed to “good” or “acceptable”) insights and ideas, and individuals create and hold their own knowledge. Of course, these insights and ideas – this knowledge – are most often inspired or catalyzed by the ideas of others, and the value of the knowledge is essentially zero until it is shared with others.

Without Euclid and Descartes, Newton would not have been able to achieve what he did. And if his work had never been published, then his ideas would never have had the opportunity to change the world.

So learn from those around you, build on the knowledge that they share. Then share your newfound knowledge right back.

Chasing mastery is worth the trouble

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success (which I will be reviewing soon), Malcolm Gladwell discusses the 10,000 hour rule, which states that to achieve mastery – of anything – requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. (Readers of Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated will recognize this idea, as well.) This is, to put it mildly, a lot of hours.

Last week a couple of bloggers I follow asked themselves if they thought all this effort was worth it.  From Did I Say That Out Loud?

So then the next question is do I even want to be an expert at anything? Is it worth 10,000 hours to master something so completely? Or is my time better spent doing the daily tasks in front of me the best that I can? Or is there some organic blend of the two?

And from Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist:

There are a few things about the article [The Making of an Expert by Anders EricssonMichael Prietula and Edward Cokely in the July/August HBR] that really make me nervous. The first is that you need to work every single day at being great at that one thing if you want to be great. This is true of pitching, painting, parenting, everything. And if you think management in corporate life is an exception, you’re wrong. I mean, the article is in the Harvard Business Review for a reason.

I was trying to come up with responses to these to let them know that it is worth the effort if you’ve found something you love. I was having a hard time coming up with the right words, so took a break to watch tennis. To watch Roger Federer win the Australian Open, his record 16th major tournament win.

And it all became clear. Not a whole lot of words needed (though I ended up typing a lot anyway).

Is chasing mastery worth the trouble? Your damn right it is.

You should write a book

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Dan Pink when he spoke at a lunch event here in St. Louis. While we were eating lunch waiting for the main event, my friend Gene said to me, “You should write a book.”  Like many people I know, my initial reaction was along the lines of, “Yeah, sure. What would I write about?” And yet…

Over the weekend I gave the idea a bit more thought. Also like many people, I’ve often thought about maybe writing a book, and Gene’s suggestion got me thinking about it again. There are actually many things I could write about: parenting, autism, leadership, systems engineering, FIRST robotics, trampoline and tumbling.

And then the resistance – my lizard brain – showed up. “But that sure is a lot of hard work.” “You don’t even have 100 subscribers to your blog, who would buy a book by you?” “You think you know enough about these topics, but do you really?” “You’ve indulged the idea, now let it go and let’s get back to what we were doing before.”

By the end of the weekend, I’m sad to admit, the resistance had all but defeated me. All I had were the remnants of a very basic mind map to show I had been thinking about it at all. And then Seth Godin told me why I should write a book:

If you’ve never written a non-fiction book, there are a lot of reasons why you might want to. It organizes your thoughts. It’s a big project worthy of your attention.

…and…

If you want to change people, you must create enough leverage to encourage the change to happen…. A book is a physical souvenir, a concrete instantiation of your ideas in a physical object, something that gives your ideas substance and allows them to travel.

A lot of ideas that bounce around in my head, and many of them get published here on the blog. Many more of them are notes and sketches in the many notebooks I’ve accumulated over the years.

Most of these are ideas for change that I want to get across to people, to maybe change their minds about how they view autism and those who are autistic or to show gym owners and team parents how they can run a trampoline and tumbling meet that people will still be talking about years later. I have pages and pages of ideas on how to spread the work and word of FIRST, to get our kids interested in how they can use science, technology, and engineering to change the world for the better.

So, I guess what I’m saying is I’m going to write a book. I’m just not sure yet what I want to write first. Thank goodness for mind maps to help me sort through all the possibilities. Once I have my topic, I’ll set a ship date and get to work.

This is my brain on the web

During a New Year’s Day seminar in which he spoke about some things he would be tracking and doing in 2010, Dan Pink made an offhand comment that “I like lists”. This comment, along with the coming of the new year and the inspiration from the seminar, prompted me to create a new “brain” – using PersonalBrain 5.5 – to collect the lists and other resources that I find useful.

Some of the thoughts in that brain will eventually find their way into a blog post or other writing somewhere, but much of it won’t. That doesn’t mean that it’s not good information, or that it isn’t worth sharing, so I’ve uploaded the brain to WebBrain.com as a way to share. It is very much a work in progress, both in terms of content and visual design, and as I continue to build it I will work on both. Let me know if you have any suggestions or ideas to add.

Here’s a quick look at the brain, and you can see it full size over at WebBrain.com. I may eventually find a permanent place here on my site for the brain, but for now I’ll just keep it there.

Uncertainty is far more challenging

In How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves, from the Board to the Boardroom, former world chess champion Gary Kasparov discusses the challenges of solving “puzzles”:

Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage; it’s like not having a “none of the above” option. Anyone with reasonable competence and adequate resources can solve a puzzle when it is presented as something to be solved. We can skip the subtle evaluations and move directly to plugging in possible solutions until we hit upon a promising one. Uncertainty is far more challenging. Instead of immediately looking for solutions to the crisis, we have to maintain a constant state of asking, “Is there a crisis forming?”

This is the future work. As Harold Jarche mentions in his recent post A Linchpin Culture (in which he discusses Seth Godin‘s latest book):

The work that we will be paid for is the difficult, innovative, one of a kind, creative stuff…. We will be facing more complexity and chaos in our work. There are fewer easy answers, easy jobs with good pay, or simple ways to keep a job for life.

Solving a puzzle that you know has a solution may require knowledge, but it is knowledge that already exists. Figuring out if there is a solution to a problem, or even if there is a problem at all, requires the manipulation of existing knowledge, the gathering of new knowledge / information, and the creation of something new.

In other words, it requires art.

Seth Godin wants you to become indispensable

When I was young, I went to see Raiders of the Lost Ark with my mom. At the conclusion of the opening sequence, as Indy’s escape plane flies away, my mom leaned over and said, “Oh my God. Is the whole movie going to be like this?” I had a very similar feeling when – on page 20 of his new book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?Seth Godin asks the reader for “one last favor before you start…”

“Before I start? Is the rest of the book going to be like this?!?”

Divided into 13 chapters, each chapter is made up of a large number of small sections, very few of which are longer than a page; one section clocked in at just one word (even though the section title is 52 words long). Though related to the chapters that hold them, these little sections seem almost like a stream of consciousness of questions and answers, insights and mandates. To risk another pop-culture metaphor, I felt at times like I was inside a Robin Williams improv routine; as soon as one idea comes out, another is liberated and thrown out into the mix.

I like this book. Or, more accurately, I like the ideas in this book. On my first read through the book I chose to dog-ear pages instead of my usual of writing in the margins. This picture shows the results of my dog-ears.

In just over 200+ pages, Seth Godin asks, explores, and answers many of the ideas questions that have been on my mind lately, especially as it relates to work and the possibility of work as art. I’ve been considering this not just for myself but for my sons, one a junior and the other a senior in high school. This book is a must read for anyone considering their own future, or what to tell their kids about how they can live their own lives.

There are many themes and ideas within this book that different people will lock onto. I have the feeling that I will be exploring the ideas in the book for many weeks to come. For me, though, the two that jumped out were the discussions of “Indoctrination: How we got here” and “The Resistance”.

The former explains how we have all – or nearly all – become “factory workers” and compares this with what we are capable of – art. The latter exposes the “scaredy cat” (my term, not his) inside our brains – our lizard brains. This part of our brain was very effective – and very essential – in our survival and evolution, but now is getting in our way. The key to overcoming any adversary is a knowledge of that adversary, and he gives us an excellent understanding of this particular one.

Earlier I mentioned an especially short section with an unusually long section title. As it turns out, that section – title and all – really sums up the entire book for me:

“Wait! Are You Saying That I Have to Stop Following Instructions and Start Being an Artist? Someone Who Dreams Up New Ideas and Makes Them Real? Someone Who Finds New Ways to Interact, New Pathways to Deliver Emotion, New Ways to Connect? Someone Who Acts Like a Human, Not a Cog? Me?”

Yes.

By the time you finish reading Linchpin, you will believe that you can do all of this. All you have to do, as Seth reminds us again and again, is to make the choice.

Jack of all trades, master of one

In his recent Zen Habits‘ article How Passion and Focus Will Rock Your Career, guest blogger Corbett Barr poses what he calls the “jack of all trades” question:

Is it better to be a Renaissance man or woman and be good at a lot of different things or to be laser-focused and really great at one specific thing?

My answer to that question: Do both and become a

jack-of-all-trades, master of one.

When I hear the expression “renaissance man”, the name that most quickly comes to mind is Leonardo da Vinci, that master of so many things. It would probably not be a stretch to say that he was a jack of all trades, and master of them all too.

But if you had had the chance to ask him what he was good at, what it was that he did, it is very likely that he would have answered with a simple, “I am a painter“. (Or, since he was Italian, probably “Sono un pittore” or “Ego sum a pictor“, assuming the online translators I used are accurate.)

Everything that Leonardo did was for the purpose of making him a better painter. His inventions, studies of anatomy, studies of birds in flight, understanding of light and shadow, and everything else he ever learned and did served a single purpose: to help him “see” the world around him so that he could put it down in paint.

In his article, Corbett goes on to recommend focus, to find your passion and become incredibly great at it. To that I would add, find those things that will make you better at what it is that you are passionate about and become good at those things so that you can become great at that one thing that matters most.

What organizations need isn’t always what they want

From Seth Godin’s recent article Why ask why?

The secret to creativity is curiosity… The student with no curiosity… is no problem at all. Lumps are easily managed.

Same thing is true for most of the people we hire. We’d like them to follow instructions, not ask questions, not question the status quo.

This reminded me of something I jotted down in my notebook from Richard Farson’s book Management of the Absurd:

Real creativity, the kind that is responsible for breakthrough changes in our society, always violates the rules. That is why it is so unmanageable and that is why, in most organizations, when we say we desire creativity we really mean manageable creativity. We don’t mean raw, dramatic, radical creativity that requires us to change.

As much as organizations say they want to be innovative and groundbreaking, they usually don’t mean they want each of their individual employees to be innovative and groundbreaking.

Even though that is often exactly what they need.