Sunday, May 11, 2014

Planning and the Illusion of Being in Control

Good morning.
"And the Beat goes on…………………."

Everyone likes to feel, at least to some degree, that they are in control of their futures.  The same is true for organizations. Planning is one way that organizations try to exert some control over their destines.  If you can identify the challenges you face, come up with viable ways to address those challenges - then you can control some of what you must deal with. But planning is axiomatically more difficult when the variables that impact plans are in a state of constant flux and change.

When the economic crisis of 2008 first hit, and we became aware that every sector would be seriously impacted, the early response of our sector was that we needed to adapt and come up with whatever quick fixes we could until the economic ship righted itself and we could get back to normal.  There was widespread belief that this would be a temporary situation and we needed to 'get through' it and emerge on the other side as whole as possible.

Within a year, a segment of arts organizations (but by no means necessarily the majority), were beginning to understand and accept that the changes wrought by the crisis were not going to be temporary, but threatened to create some 'new normal' wherein the new challenges would be permanent and that we had to adjust to the fact that long term planning might be increasingly difficult. Reluctance and denial remained the course for a part of our universe, and understandably so, for planning became far more problematic and difficult, and with that difficulty came tension and uncertainty.  If change had become so rapid, so systemic, so deep and varied - how could we predict and identify what challenges we might face and for which we might be able to plan, and thus cope. It's hard to play a game if the rules are constantly changing.

Strategic planning, of course, had undergone fundamental re-thinking even before the crisis of 2008 and the new reality.  Re-thinking began perhaps a decade before that - very likely spurred on by the rapidity of change in the technology sector - when change itself was being redefined to include both the constant and breadth of change.  That realization dictated that all planning approaches moved to being more adaptive, nimble, and temporary.  The norm of long term strategic planning - the five years out plan - began to appear as folly as fundamental and rapid change in virtually all the assumptions on which planning could reasonably be based, as well as the increase of massive amounts of available data, seemed clearly to suggest that the pace, depth and scope of change would negate any attempt at such long term planning - making much of that planning obsolete even before being implemented.  Because much of all planning is always guesswork at best, trying to make informed and reliable long term guesses as to the future of everything from the economy to people's tastes became virtually impossible. Hence a move to a shorter planning period as being more reasonable and less a waste of time and effort, not to mention reducing the risk of making a catastrophic mistake.

But even in the face of evidence suggesting long term planning was becoming all but impossible, many of those in our field - at least those that still had resources - continued to engage in long term planning.  Those without resources, of necessity, had no choice but to embrace short term fixes as a means to try to just survive, and that created its own stress and tension for if you can only plan for the very short term, then the standard business model that calls for long term planning as necessary to stability has to change. The hope in both approaches was that some kind of planning would give us some measure of control over our own destines, and next we embraced the concepts of innovation and entrepreneurship as complementary to quick fixes  - as a process.  It remains difficult for us (or any sector) to accept that change itself has so undergone 'change', that we are not only very likely not in control of parts of the external environment, but that we aren't likely to recapture that control over our futures anytime soon.  That reality, if true, puts us into a very difficult situation as we try to adjust and adapt to new challenges on a regular basis, and plan so as not to merely cast our fate to the winds.

How can you conduct business without planning, without being able to rely on some constancy and consistency in the challenges you have to face by fashioning reasonable and rational responses? How do you reach stability and sustainability if all your planning efforts by necessity have to be "on the fly" as it were?  How can a municipality formulate a rational cultural plan when the variables of demographics may change before the plan is even implemented?  Is it logical for funders to continue to require long term strategic plans, if that has become a waste of time and energy?  Yet, the other side of the coin is perhaps even more persuasive - at least to some - to wit:  how can you NOT plan? While the quick fix itself is somewhat of an abandonment of the idea that we can control things, a de facto admission that we cannot really control much more than a limited piece of our future - it has become a principal survival tool.  It very well may be that the quick fix approach to planning is the future - even if only by default as being more logical, better suited to the realization of consensus goals, and with less negative baggage as the now cumbersome and often irrelevant long term process.

Every field wants to be able to mount realistic long term plans that will serve as a blueprint and roadmap to achieve all kinds of current and future goals and needs.   Arts organizations are no different.  And planning, in our field like others, has become embedded in the culture of how we do business; not only organizational plans but cultural plans.  Planning as a cottage industry has become big business -- in the arts too.  There is much at stake, and many with a vested interest, in keeping the idea of long term planning alive and healthy.  Moreover, it has become a habit for us.  To be sure, planning on some level is essential.  But how far out front?  Is ten year long term planning viable?  Five years?  One year?  Does systemic organizational planning make sense, or is a departmental approach the wiser course?  Can you successfully plan for some things, but not for others?

I think questioning our whole approach to planning is legitimate. Is the time, effort, and resources we commit to long term or any planning justified?  Is there a better approach than what we are using?

Examples of the difficulty of long term planning abound.  I am a "boomer" - the postwar generation that boasted numbers so large that it signaled a change in generational impact.  Boomers became the center of the universe in America; celebrated, courted and coddled.  It was good to grow up a boomer for all things were geared towards our tastes, our thinking, our concepts of the future.  I went to school at Berkeley - one of the early centers of protest and the call for change.  We thought our fellow boomers all felt as did we.  We thought we were one, a massive homogenous force for change, and that the change we called for was, because of our numbers, inevitable.  Decades later we realized that while there was much the boomers shared - that you could define boomers in numerous, and reliable ways - we were not of a single mind on anything.  Today boomers are as varied as the populace; conservative and liberal, and fit every other categorical definition.

The Millenials (the children of the Boomers) have replaced Boomers as the chosen ones.  This cohort is even larger than the Boomers were, and they are the ones now chased and courted. They are the future.  (The X generation - sandwiched between the Boomers and the Millenials - and often give short shift because the size of that generation was arguably too small to have the same impact is, perhaps ironically, now the one that is coming into the power and decision making positions.  Xers entered the job market when jobs were still plentiful and they avoided some of the challenges the Millenials now face).  The Millenials are now the desirable target demographic and they are being studied and analyzed and huge amounts of data about them is being collected and the implications debated.

We in the arts have joined the race to make the Millenials our audiences, our supporters - a part of our world.  We are engaging in long term planning to understand what they want and why and how we can get them to embrace us.  But we may be making a mistake in assuming that our current understanding of that generation and how they currently behave or will behave allows us to craft long term planning with regards to getting them to become part of our world in the way we want them. As a cohort, the Millenial generation is as likely to change their perceptions, attitudes and everything else as did the Boomers before them. Their tastes are not likely to remain constant nor are their ideas and approaches to everything from philanthropy to leisure spending.  While they will carry with them certain shared characteristics over time, and while the circumstances of their growing up (e.g., the embrace of technology) will forever impact how they act, those common denominators are not likely to make their behavior consistent or constant over time as a cohesive group.

There is no reason to suspect that the Millenials will not undergo all kinds of changes in their tastes and behavior.  I would argue that we must be careful in making assumptions about them, as we ought to be careful in relying on a whole host of assumptions about everything we try to plan for.

Certainly, probability analysis - where you can run the relative risk of all kinds (and numbers) of options - can reduce the risk of planning mistakes.  But even there, there is a danger in making major commitments in terms of long term planning that may turn out to be very poor (and costly) decisions. Six years ago any number of entities embarked on the building of major facilities and such planning decisions very likely seemed well thought out and the right move.  But many of our organizations that embarked on that kind of building, faced now with unanticipated changes in customer behavior (for a wide variety of reasons), regret those decisions.  'If you build it, they will come' turned out for many a false prophesy - more like 'If you build it, you just may get stuck with it and the cost will change your model (and not for the good) forever.'

While the short term quick fix approach to planning leaves us feeling less in control of our futures, the fact that much of any kind of planning is but mere guesswork, coupled with the narrowing of options that any commitment to any planning scenario may entail, and the reality may be that the quick fix or short term adaptable planning model is the most reasonable approach to innovation, being nimble, and responding to changes over which we have little control, and which seem to have a propensity for surfacing at the wrong time.  That kind of approach forces us to be in the moment and continuously rethink what we are doing and how we are doing. The long term planning model allows us to ignore many of the instant variables and stick to actions that may or may not continue to be viable.  In short, longer term planning provides us with an excuse not to work harder at adaptation, innovation and being creative in our approaches.  To a degree, it fosters procrastination and laziness.  Moreover it puts a burden on us to achieve stated goals and milestones that may be impossible, and on a timetable that may be unrealistic.  That cannot help but negatively impact morale, momentum and ultimately success.

If the variables that affect the what, how and why we pursue any given business strategy are in constant change, and our understanding of those variables cannot be more than a snapshot in time, subject to change at a dizzying pace, then how do we maintain any kind of control over how we face the challenges that come up?  A quick fix approach is arguably nothing more than a reactive tool that leaves you scrambling all the time just to maintain an already dire status quo. But the reality is that for many variables there may be no other alternative.

The key may be in embracing re-envisioning the long term plan to be some combination of generalized and idealized goals, and one including some minimally necessary milestones, coupled with the idea that planning itself will have to take on the same characteristics as the change it is designed to address - namely constantly in flux, changing continuously and with a nod to the reality that virtually all of our assumptions can legitimately be characterized as suspect.  It simply may be that the old style long term strategic planning is no longer as viable an option to meeting the challenges we face that it once was.  Maybe the approach of the quick fix - while far from an ideal way to conduct business - is nonetheless one way to be adaptable and innovative - at least as a means to enable progress towards longer term goals.  That is likely to make many uncomfortable and frequently scratching their heads, but the alternative of loyalty to long term planning may have worse consequences for us all.

If long term planning is still your primary strategy, I would urge you to, at least, consider having as part of that process a strategy for short term, quick fix planning as a means of adjusting, adapting and being able to articulate responses to unforeseen trends and events.  I can almost guarantee you that the unpredictable and unforeseen will crop up with increasing frequency during the timeline of your current plan.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.