Planning and Innovation
by Ray Strackbein
People who rigidly stick to a plan are often oblivious to warning signs of a doomed project. Innovators are accustomed to working in unknown, changing environments. There is a time for planning and there is a time
for innovation. By properly using the techniques of both planning and innovation, most surprises can be anticipated and overcome. Here are three indicators of when to plan and when to innovate.
When to plan
Planning works when:
1. The users have specified it before
2. You have contracted it before
3. The contractors have built it before.
When some or all these conditions are missing, a project progressively becomes an innovation. Planning works well when all of the above three criteria are met. Planning progressively fails as fewer of the criteria
exist. Let me explain.
People ask me why their project failed. Most want a better way to plan to prevent future failures. These people often are superb planners who already know the standard planning methods. They plead for even
better planning methods, as if formulating a plan were a panacea. They don't consider using innovation methods instead of planning methods. There is a time for planning and there is a time for innovation.
A large corporation can do a superb job of planning a new office tower when it has a history of successfully planning office towers.
When the corporation asks future users of the building how much room and what features they will need, experienced users know their requirements. Accountants know what they need in an office to
support their task, as does the sales force. The corporation has extensive experience with the first condition: the users have specified what they need in buildings many times before.
The corporation then hires an architect to design the building. The corporation has used architects before and chooses an architect who has designed office buildings before, not a residential architect whose only
experience is designing single-family houses.
The corporation shows the architect's plans to a contractor. The contractor has built office towers before. The contractor knows the requirements of the city planners and building officials. The
contractor knows the local subcontractors. The second condition is met because the corporation has contracted it before.
Everyone's combined experience minimizes the effects of surprises. Suppose the excavators digging a hole for the foundation discover unexpected geology. A local geologist and a local foundation engineer join the
team. Together, they agree on the changes to the building.
The corporation has a lot of experience with the third condition: the contractors have built office towers many times before.
Scrap Planning and Innovate
We have examined the office tower as an example of a project suitable for planning. Compare that with NASA building a space station.
The space station will use the latest technology and materials. No one has ever built a city in outer space before. The space station will be full of surprises. The builders will have to
innovate and invent as they encounter each surprise.
Invention and innovation can be estimated, but not accurately scheduled. In the case of NASA’s space station, none of the three conditions for planning exist. The users of the space station have never specified a
space station before. NASA hasn't contracted for a space station before. The contractors haven't built one before, and certainly haven’t constructed a large project in outer space.
As the innovative project progresses, the users change their minds as it evolves, the organization changes the contract to incorporate new features
undreamed-of before, but now known to be essential, and the contractors discover problems as they construct, causing changes in the original plans.
Plan to Innovate
Does this mean NASA shouldn’t plan?
Of course not. NASA just needs to allow for more slippage in the plans. It will run over time and budget. The space station is a risky project. In many environments, a project that completes late or over budget
is judged a failure. Not only is the project a failure, but the plan is a failure.
Acknowledge the Unknown
The keyword for successful planning is experience.
The more experience you have with what you are planning, the more successful
your planning efforts are. The less experience you have with what you are planning, the greater the requirement for innovative problem solving, guessing, and just plain trial-and-error. Welcome to the world of innovation.
Builders who rigidly stick to a plan are often oblivious to warning signs of a doomed project. Innovators are accustomed to working in unknown, changing environments.
Innovators know how to try something new and recognize the indicators of approaching success or failure. By properly using the techniques of both planning and innovation, most surprises can be
anticipated and overcome.
Are we reengineering our civilization, or moving from the Industrial Age to the Information Age? What you call it doesn't matter; we are all trying to cope with unknown changes. This is a
time for experienced, planned, and purposeful innovation.