Hurricane Coming: Improvisation vs Planning

Posted by: Michael Mandel on September 22

With another killer hurricane about to hit the U.S., I want to note that Arnold Kling has two very relevant essays on how to deal with disasters, wars, and other high-uncertainty events. The two essays are The Impossibility of ‘Planned Improvisation’ and The Planning Illusion. Kling writes:

I think that people have a tendency to put too much faith in centralized planning, and they do not have sufficient regard for decentralized improvisation. The more ambiguity that exists in a situation—because of its novelty, uncertainty, and the absence of critical information—the more that it favors improvisation over planning.

He goes on to say:

When something goes wrong, there is a natural desire to blame a lack of planning. In fact, with hindsight, it is always possible to come up with a plan that would have worked better. I would refer to this as the planning illusion. This illusion causes a number of problems.

First, the planning illusion leads to the syndrome known as “planning for the last war.” Organizations develop a set of operating strategies that are based on theories that are outdated, or just completely misguided.

Second, faith in planning causes organizations to become overly centralized. Information from peripheral sources is ignored. Flexibility for field-level decisionmaking is denied.

Finally, faith in planning leads people to believe that government has a solution for every problem. In many cases, better approaches emerge from decentralized improvisations.

And concludes by saying:

My sense is that we live in an age where ambiguity is on the rise, because technology is changing rapidly and globalization has increased the speed at which opportunities and threats materialize. This suggests a relatively greater need for improvisation and adaptation, with somewhat less value in bureaucratic planning. Unfortunately, the planning illusion seems to cause many people to long for a government approach that is more centralized rather than less.

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Reader Comments

Laura

September 22, 2005 07:32 PM

Hi Dad. It's me, your daughter. Your blog is very cool. Good job keeping up with the new technology. I have to go finish my history homework now. Everybody comment because my dad's cool, well, most of the time! :-)

Jason Kerr

September 22, 2005 09:48 PM

Great thoughts on high-uncertainty scenarios.

Laura's right.

In fact her dad's blog is the saving grace among the other blogs on BW online.

Frans Bouman

September 23, 2005 12:41 PM

Being totally dependent on the plan is as bad as not having a plan. Plans are the starting point from which you move forward. Preposition your assests. Provide everyone with a full understanding of their role, proper traning and the tools and authority to carry out the job. Then stand back and watch how things unfold and move quickly to fill in gaps that occur. There will be few if you've done your job... the folks on the ground will take care of it.
On the other hand, if you pretend you have the assets but you don't, if you strip away the trained people and replace them with amateurs, if you ignore problems while they are small and solvable and simply hope and pray they'll go away... well then you get 9/11, Katrina, Rita, Falujah etc. etc. etc.
Things are going to get a LOT worse before they get better. We must elect and appoint leaders in this country before our citizens get so sick of the incompetence that they vote a Mussolini or a Hitler into power. We cannot afford to continue to put politics first and competence second in the vetting of people for leadership positions. Enough people have already died. Rita has already scored its first victims in Texas and it is still 220 miles offshore.
It's the incompetence, stupid!

steve

August 31, 2009 11:08 AM

As a leader, I have little faith in plans, but deep faith in planning. The more uncertain the environment and the more educated and creative the employees, the greater the need for effective PLANNING processes that ultimately make unit level improvisations relevant, integrated, and successful. On the other hand, the more uncertain the environment and the less educated the employees, the greater the danger of unit level improvisations. I know the article is old by internet standard, but it just caught my attention.

Thank you for your interest. This blog is no longer active.

 

About

Michael Mandel, BW's award-winning chief economist, provides his unique perspective on the hot economic issues of the day. From globalization to the future of work to the ups and downs of the financial markets, Mandel-named 2006 economic journalist of the year by the World Leadership Forum-offers cutting edge analysis and commentary.

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