The Myth of the Plan

My wife doesn’t like science fiction or fantasy movies – she finds the effort of suspending her disbelief too much to enjoy herself. I’m a little bit like this when it comes to writing project designs or annual plans – it’s just too much myth making for me to feel like it’s time well spent.

The issue is this: 98% of the relevant information we need to write a good plan is unknown at the time we write it. We more or less know where we want to go, but the map we draw to get there is based on heroic assumptions about the terrain ahead well beyond our vision. We will certainly have gathered as much information as possible to help us create this map – government statistics about the project area, analyzed results from our own community surveys and focus group discussions, documentation from meetings with community leaders, and so forth. We may even have multiple scenarios mapped out to manage multi-dimensional risks that give our map a sense of flexibility to likely changes in conditions. But even with all this, a constant stream of unforeseen events, new information, and unpredicted behavior will quickly unravel our confidence in the assumptions on which our plan is based.

There is a saying, ‘reality always wins.’ Unexpectedly heavy rains will halve the planned number of community participants in workshops over the winter. A report showing the community’s school to be lagging will suddenly shift their priority from the health sector to education. The death of a key community leader will drain the momentum out of a whole line of activities that she had championed. Election violence will create security risks that will keep staff out of the community for three weeks. A string of unannounced donor visits will throw off an entire month of work, leaving staff playing catchup for the quarter. The head office will announce changes in the financial software and chart of accounts for the coming fiscal year that will require several members of the administration team to attend training workshops, and they will then fall behind on requisitions and payments, forcing delays in planned development activities. Two staff members will give birth and three will get sick in an oddly coordinated attack on productivity right in the middle of the annual planning season. The dollar will weaken unexpectedly and suck 5% of the budget out from under foot. At times it will feel like Murphy’s Law is in effect. Reality isn’t polite, it doesn’t wait for an invitation, it barges in. Reality always wins.

Double Jeopardy

We fall into the myth of the plan twice, once when we write the myth, and again when we try to manage to the myth. When we plan, we omit a reasonable cushion, making it unrealistic. When we manage, we apply an unreasonable rigidity, making it mythological. When things don’t go as planned – when reality doesn’t follow the myth – we make ever more heroic efforts to improve the planning process and increase the incentives to stick to the plan. That is, we make the plan even more detailed and rigid, falling further into land of make believe.

When Writing Plans. We write plans that fully utilize all available time and resources. This is foolish. Do we suppose that nothing will make unexpected demands on our time and resources or reduce our capacity? I did an experiment recently with a field team of development professionals. We tested their ability to plan their activities three months in advance – activities that were already based on the annual plan! They did alright the first month out, but by the time they got to the third month, over 30% of what they actually did no longer matched what they had planned to do. Yet most planning is done at least 12 months in advance, and project designs often have a 3-5 year time horizon.

Certainly we are not unaware that ahead in the darkness lurk beasts of the unexpected. Yet we are stoic in our planning, assigning all resources, finding a place for all capacity. Taking the offensive, we push hard to improve the planning process, attempting to capture the demons of uncertainty.  We adopt ever more detailed DME standards and templates that implicitly assume sci-fi levels of prescience. We start the planning process earlier so that our time horizon is even further out than before. Yes, we should think things through before we act, and yes, we do owe it to our donors to give a pretty good idea about how their money is to be spent. But most of the plans I’ve read over the years evidence not so much professionalism and responsibility as collective self-deception.

When Managing Plans. Here is where the more significant problem with the myth comes in. It’s one thing to make plans for a specific number of participants, and a specific number of purchased materials, and specific costs for things, and so forth – its another to prefer the myth of the plan over the reality of … reality. That is, when we apply rigidity to the plan and provide incentives to stick to it despite new information and changing conditions, we move into a realm of unicorns, fairy dust, and bad development practice.

The Straightjacket: bind the budget to the plan, then make it a performance issue to stay within the margins.

Here’s a typical practice: bind the budget to the plan through the logical framework, fence it in with margins on each activity line, and then make it an employee performance issue to stay within these margins. If you’re making widgets, this makes sense. Good project management is about the ability to follow a plan – accomplish scheduled activities on time and under budget … if you’re making widgets. If you’re doing community development, though, do you really want to create incentives to follow a plan that was written while most relevant information was still hidden? This may be good in some ways for the organization, but doesn’t’ necessarily make for good development practice. Why would we voluntarily put ourselves into such a straight-jacket? We need the ability to make mid-course corrections. Once the real terrain comes to light and we realize that our planned route that looked so straight and perfect on paper six months ago will actually take us across a mountain range of under-capacity, across a gorge of community disinterest, and through a labyrinth of political complexity, we will be sorry to have bound ourselves to the path.

Since I’ve been on the subject of ‘facipulation’ in my last two posts, it’s worth noting that binding development facilitators to a plan is a pretty good way to get them to start facipulating their discussions with the community. Ignoring new information from the community is a key facipulation skill. Finding ways to push off dealing with new events and conditions is too. Armed with the ability to say, ‘well, it’s not in the plan for this year, but we can talk about it in the next planning cycle’ is a great way to side-step reality when your organization’s plan is out of step with the community’s preferred future. Hear that? That’s the sound of your project stepping a rung or two down somebody’s participation ladder.

Good project management in this context requires a team, structure, and policy environment that encourages adjustments to new information and events. It requires creativity, agility, flexibility, and very good communication between staff, volunteers, community members, and donors. In mythological terms, we should prefer the creative agility of Hermes over Odysseus’ lashing of himself to the mast.

How Then Shall We Plan?

A good plan has four essential elements that define both how it is written and how it is managed.

  1. Shared Objectives. The community, the development organization, and donors should agree on the general objectives of working together. Not to be confused with the activities that will move them all toward these, the objectives describe the changes a “successful” project would contribute to bringing about. This is the core of the plan – to work together to make this preferred future a reality.
  2. Agreed Process. The partners should also agree how they are going to move forward toward these objectives. This includes a starting set of activities, but it allows for some of these to be dropped and for others not yet imaged to be included as future conditions become known. It also includes, perhaps more importantly, a process for working together – how, who, and when will the partners negotiate the next steps together; how will they deal with new information and events; what will the process be for monitoring progress; and how will decisions be made about the scarce resources available to the partners as they move forward.
  3. Guiding Principles. A set of principles that will guide decisions as tradeoffs and hard decisions come down the road. What are the values and principles against which two directions at a fork in the road should be considered.
  4. An adaptive Leader with Decision Rights to Lead its Implementation. I confess I came back and added this last one after I had already published this blog post, but I’m on a learning curve too, so bear with me. None of this works if you haven’t got the right person at the helm, who is able and empowered to see and interpret new information affecting the project and then make adaptive decisions that keep the project moving toward the shared objective, regardless of whether or not it takes the activities off course in terms of the plan. Obviously, such decisions often have budgetary consequences and will necessarily involve the partners, but project managers are too often placed in straightjackets or treated like administrators. Recruit and hire a skilled and experienced adaptive leader, and then empower that person to be an adaptive leader to keep things truly on track.

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Categories: Aid Effectiveness, Development Practice


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18 Comments on “The Myth of the Plan”

  1. June 28, 2011 at 11:42 pm #

    Insightful reflections Aaron – thanks…I went to “planning” school, and ironically came away with a deep skepticism about planning. Many development organizations seem to be locked into a “rational-comprehensive” approach to planning that was discredited long ago in academic planning circles, in favour of “social learning” (which your “three essential elements” would fit into) and/or “radical planning” approaches. There is a quote I love from Rainier Maria Rilke that sums up our planning conundrum quite well:

    “No, no there is nothing in the world that can be imagined in advance, not the slightest thing. Everything is made up of so many unique particulars that are impossible to foresee. In imagination, we pass over them in our haste and don’t notice that they’re missing. But realities are slow and indescribably detailed.”

    (Rainer Maria Rilke, quoted in Broughton, Barnard, “Bridging the gap : a guide to monitoring and evaluating development projects”, ACFOA, 1997)

    And of course, there is always good ole’ Robbie Burns:

    thou are no thy-lane [alone],
    In proving foresight may be vain:
    The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
    Gang aft agley [often go awry],
    An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
    For promis’d joy!

    (Robert Burns, To a Mouse)

    • June 29, 2011 at 5:20 am #

      Thanks for those great quotes Warren. I was – er, rather am – Yammering with Julian Srodecki about HEA’s adaptive response work, building on thinking around “the need to be adaptive in our planning and the application of Cynfin and other models that talk about a Chaos phase when we cannot plan in a linear fashion.” It reminded me of a good post by another blogging colleague called “Embracing the ChaoticL Cynefin and Humanitarian Response. “

  2. David Aston
    July 1, 2011 at 8:06 pm #

    Not sure I will be as poetic or thoughtful as above comments (my neurons are currently occupied with pathophysiology and pharmacology for my MSN). That said, your article is truly amazing and expresses and angst and frustration I carried for the six and half years I worked in Bolivia. Early in my time abroad I tried to express my frustrations with the directors regarding planning. As a young and inexperienced worker in the international dev. field I really didn’t have the words to express what I thought wasn’t working. Your article would have been an amazing tool as I worked to understand the process. Thanks for the continued insight.

    • July 2, 2011 at 6:57 am #

      David, you’re too kind. Although otherwise occupied, you’ve got some of the healthiest neurons and most active synaptic clefts I know. That said, you have sort of gotten to the heart of why I write this blog – I do hope that younger volunteers and new workers in the field find this blog and encounter ways to articulate their nascent observations and to frame their emerging critiques. Any chance that a visit to Colombia is still on the horizon?

      • August 15, 2011 at 2:03 am #

        Hi Aaron.

        I don’t want to comment too much, but I would like you to know that as a new (ish!) development worker I found this post very informative. It is so important for me to keep questioning what I am learning/ what is being done in the development field and blogs like this are critical to that process.

        I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months thinking over the need for, and process of strategic planning, and the different ways in which planning is done in the NGO versus corporate sectors. Pushing the boundaries of what has come to be considered the norm in regards to NGO planning is something which I think can be difficult to do. After all, change in any form or context is challenging not only for individuals but especially for entire organisations.

        Sometimes it can feel very isolating to go through these sorts of intellectual debates in your own mind without interaction from other people in the field. So, please keep up the excellent blogging both here and on Yammer!

      • August 15, 2011 at 9:13 am #

        Thank you very much for your kind words. I’ll do my best to keep stimulating content coming and look forward to further interaction. I looked for you on Yammer, but didn’t find you.

    • July 2, 2011 at 6:59 am #

      I forgot to mention that with Gabriela’s collaboration, I’m going to start publishing the blog en español! If there are any Spanish-only speakers you think might benefit from or simply enjoy reading the blog, you’ll be able to share with them soon.

  3. Jyoti Mukhia
    July 2, 2011 at 11:36 pm #


    Very insightful and we at the grass root always feel frustrated when our plans do not materialize, we have to do reviswion of our budgets after investing so much of time and energy in developing good logframes with all the possible assumptions incorporated. I see this as our faulty view on development. We use logframe which emerges from our vertical thinking and vertical thinking do not always work in working conditions except in our logic class and in philosophical arguments. The development work is a complex issue and I believe it requires complex thinking (I am reading materials on thinking so the influence), the modalities of thinking like system thinking or holistic thinking which we always promote but rarely practice could be one of the answer for this stated issue. Secondly, instead of emphasising more on logical framework we can test the current fad in development “Theory (ies???) of Change”. Various processes incorporated in World Vision’s IPM model could be a panacea for this problem too.
    Culture of Alternative thinking is also could be alternative for the traditional thinking and planning process. But I must accept the fact also that we are becoming lazy enough to think and think in disciplined way. The causes I could see in our working place… too much of doing and less reflection, there is no space for innovation, we tend to ignore personal or professional growth, we are happy with status quo.

  4. Karen Medica
    July 5, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

    I think the ‘Myth of the Plan’ is very closely linked to what we often see as a ‘donorship’ rather than ‘ownership’ approach to development. I’ve been raising this issue recently with Australian government post-graduates who are experienced development professionals studying in Australia. The common response is that plans, which are created more often to serve the needs of the donors and INGOs are not shared, and not often understood by those that are required to implement in the field setting. Seems we have come a long way with the development rhetoric in the post-colonial world, but have we really?

    • July 6, 2011 at 7:16 am #

      Thanks for your comment Karen. I think the issue you raised is real, but perhaps more related to the mismatch between participation rhetoric and reality (a topic I discussed last month in the post “fa⋅ci⋅pu⋅la⋅tion“). I think it is possible to have a high shared ownership in a plan and still fall victim to the myth of the plan. Even if the community shaped the plan as an equal partner with the donors and development agency, if they didn’t leave room in the plan to flex to changing conditions and adjust to new information and events, they’ll still be locked on a road built in the dark.

  5. July 6, 2011 at 3:03 am #

    Your points, Aaron, need to be made more frequently. The questions arising in planning regarding risk and uncertainty are usually addressed by reference to past, similar risks. This is sort of like the stress tests applied to banks recently. The stress tests are largely garbage because they use the last set of data while the next crises event might very well be worse. There is also a very strong tendency in planning to reinforce existing beliefs. We are selective in what are chosen as examples, ignoring the outliers that don’t fit our particular model. We tunnel. The biggest culprits are the donor agencies who attempt to use ‘one size fits all’ approaches in their RFPs and Scopes of Work. They are normally out of date by the time a particular project begins and have been only marginally discussed with the unfortunate recipient of the aid. There is no real buy-in and it is almost a sin to actually take into consideration what the recipient thinks.

    Although it is difficult to change a project once it is established by the donor, every attempt must be made when necessary. The difficulty here is that the contractors who are repeatedly selected to implement programs largely get their contracts because they don’t challenge or object to anything the donor has put forward as methodology or even solutions.

    Finally, it is really impossible to anticipate every risk. Some are simply unknown and attempts to plan by forecasting every risk is not practicable. However, planning with the awareness that an event – currently thought highly unlikely and set aside – can indeed occur with devastating effect will help to cushion the blow when it comes. And it will.

    Taleb explains the flaws applicable to tunnel vision planning in The Black Swan. More development theorists should keep his points in mind. The objective is not to be the turkey.

    • July 6, 2011 at 7:29 am #

      Thanks for your comment Richard. I think now that I should have talked more explicitly about risk management in the post. The reed that is flexible shows its strength as it bends in the unpredictable wind. The stiffer the plan, the fewer resources left unassigned, the more tightly bound the organization and its employees are bound to it, the more devastating the effect of the unforecast event.
      BTW, I like your blog – I hadn’t seen it before. It’s intelligent, broad, and doesn’t pull its punches. Is Petro still a partner though? You’ve been doing all the writing.

      • July 6, 2011 at 7:39 am #

        Thanks for your comment on the blog. Very hard to keep up with it though. My real job keeps interfering.

        Unfortunately Petro succumbed to an insidious cancer last December. He had contributed as an editor and with ideas – but as you might imagine was pre-occupied. It came as quite a shock.

        However, this weekend I’m going to try and follow through with my recent promise on the blog to talk about the new, old world order from an island just outside of Dar es Salaam.

      • July 6, 2011 at 3:25 pm #

        I hear you with the real job interfering with blog – I actually had to take a six month break from mine just six months after starting! Man, so sorry to hear about Petro. I’ll look forward to reading your new post.

  6. July 6, 2011 at 8:02 pm #

    Russell Lewis left this quote for me at LinkedIn where I left a link to this post. It’s a good one, so I’ll share it here as well. It’s from Brian Quinn of Dartmouth, and is in Mintzberg’s classic study, “The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning”:

    “A good deal of the corporate planning I have observed is like a ritual rain dance; it has no effect on the weather that follows, but those who engage in it think it does. Moreover, it seems to me that much of the advice and instruction related to corporate planning is directed at improving the dancing, not the weather.”

  7. Frank Cookingham
    May 10, 2013 at 8:22 pm #

    Excellent post, Aaron. Any thoughts on how to get folks firmly grounded in logical planning frameworks to consider the three principles?


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