Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Best Laid Plans

"What managers keep forgetting is that it is the action, not the plan, that explains their success. They keep giving credit to the wrong thing—namely, the plan—and, having made this error, spend more time planning so that they'll have more good outcomes. They are astonished when more planning improves nothing." (Karl Weick 1995: 55)

Readers of this blog know that I'm not often in agreement with Karl Weick about how to do things. The above quote is a classic example of where we differ. It is, of course, the plan plus the action that explains success, not the action or the plan alone. This goes very much for writing.

It is not the act of writing alone that makes you a successful writer, though you do of course actually have to write. What will make you a successful writer is writing according to an intelligent plan. While it's true that you should always spend more time writing than planning your writing, writers who are not succeeding as much as they would like will often get a great deal out of "spending more time planning", i.e., more time than they currently do. Often, they just need to go from intending to write or planning to write (as in, "I plan to write this paper next semester"), to planning their writing, i.e., making a plan for how they will get it done.

Plans can get quite detailed. At some stages of writing you only need to know what parts of the paper you are going to be working on from day to day. (The minimum planning horizon is to know what you will be writing about in the morning before you go to bed.) But at other stages it can be useful to have a plan that forces you quickly through each part or aspect of your paper over, say, a week or two or four. Here your plan might divide your time into hours or even half hours. Your tasks might be as specific as "Write a paragraph showing that..." or "Work on the last paragraph of the methods section for 30 minutes." Acting on such a plan will explain your success.

The fact that even the best laid plans can go awry and that no one ever follows a plan to the letter (or the minute) does not make planning a ridiculous exercise. "Plans are a lot like maps," as Weick says. But it is simply not true, as he also says, that "any old map will do" or that "more planning improves nothing". As I said in my last post, you've probably got about 240 hours to get something done this semester. You've probably got some specific papers in mind that you want to get written. You need to find an intelligent way to spend those hours to achieve your goals. Ask yourself: what are the 100 or 200 actions that you need to take over the next 240 hours of writing? How many of those tasks can you define very clearly already today? 100? 50? 25? 10? Surely this is not an absurd question. Surely you will not be "astonished" to find planning helpful here. But if you are going to be astonished that all planning and no acting doesn't get the job done, well, then, yes, you have forgotten something quite important. And quite obvious.


Jonathan said...

Excellent post.

Planning is part of the writing process. If you are writing an outline or an introduction, you are writing and planning at the same time. Planning also provides a kind of leverage, a way of increasing efficiency.

Planning does not precede action, but accompanies it.

You wouldn't want to separate navigation from traveling itself, even if some navigation seems unnecessary if you know where you are going.

Thomas said...

This may merely be pseudo-profound but...

Some traveling also becomes unnecessary when you know where you are going.