Plans are useless - really?

Sparked by a recent thread on LinkedIn, I would like to dig a little bit into the idea of planning in an agile environment.

Useless, worthless, pointless plans

These three terms are often conflated, even though they do not mean the same thing.

Utility

Let's start with a metaphor.
Sand may be considered to be useless in a desert.
Then again, sand is very useful when making transistor chips from the silicon.
We need sand to sustain our production of computers, which in turn sustains our modern lifestyle. While sand (as an intermediary input) is useless, the results created by the sand are highly useful.

Such are plans.
A plan's usefulness is the extent in which it is used.
A plan is only useless if it isn't used at all.

Calling plans "useless" is misleading - more interesting is the question which aspects of the plan are being used and which aren't.

Value

Again, let's go to a metaphor.
Water has no value to a person living on a lakeshore, and even negative value to a person who is drowining. It's precious to people living in an arid environment. It's the same water - only in a different context.

Value depends on market forces - supply and demand.

A plan's value lies in how far it is actually demanded.
A plan is worthless when nobody wants it. It is also worthless when it leads us to places we don't want to go.

Calling plans "worthless" is an oversimplification. More interesting is the question how to maximize the value of planning.

Return on Invest (ROI)

An extension of value is the Return on Invest - that is, the investment into the plan. Irrespective whether you calculate cost by creation effort or TCO, it does affect the net value of the plan.
Note: A plan may have a negative ROI even though it does have value!


Purpose

Let's skip the metaphor.
A plan in and of itself has no purpose. The purpose of a plan lies in achieving a goal.

A plan has a purpose if it helps us reach our goal better than we would otherwise.
A plan is pointless if it either doesn't help us reach our goal or distracts us from our goal.

Calling plans "pointless" is a hasty generalization. More interesting is the question how to ensure our plan serves its purpose.


Consequences

The best plans maximizes all three attributes: utility, value and purpose.

A plan is ...

  • beneficial, if it helps make better choices.
  • worthwhile, if it results in more benefit than it did cost.

The plan is, however ...
  • useless, if it doesn't get used or in a way that doesn't produce benefits.
  • worthless, if it isn't needed.
  • pointless, if it doesn't lead us to our goal.


Better plans

A plan is always made within a context.
As we gain more information, we need to integrate this into our plan.
As information changes, we need to update our plan.

All these activities are part of planning.

Planning

There are two types of planning - the initial plan creation, and replanning, i.e. updating the plan.

Spending more time on planning is...

  • a benefit if it increases utility, value and purpose of the plan.
  • worthwhile if the benfit outweighs the cost.

Spending more time on planning is...

  • useless, if it doesn't add further utility.
  • worthless, if it doesn't add further value.
  • pointless, if it doesn't help us reach our goal better.

Replanning

The best plan isn't the plan with highest accuracy, but the plan which maximizes utility, value and purpose while minimizing cost. It is optimzed for cost both during initial creation and future changes. It therefore likewise minimizes the deterioration in utility, value and purpose while simultaneously minimizing cost in each step. 

The easiest way to achieve this is by not planning things that do not need to be planned yet, as this implicitly reduces the risk of sinking money into re-planning.

An agile planning strategy

Agile plans are extremely context sensitive. 
Depending on how fast your environment changes, your planning horizon can be longer or shorter.
Depending on how much information of a plan helps in achieving your goal, your planning scope may be bigger or smaller.



Conclusion

Both planning and plans can be useful, worhwhile and purposeful. And each can be neither of these three things.

Avoid conflating or generalizing these issues. Instead, when you think that your plan is useless, inspect and adapt on this. Likewise, when you think your plans are worthless or pointless.

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