The Death of Planning

By Stuart Boardman, KPN

If I were to announce that planning large scale transformation projects was a waste of time, you’d probably think I’d taken leave of my senses. And yet, somehow this thought has been nagging at me for some time now. Bear with me.

It’s not so long ago that we still had debates about whether complex projects should be delivered as a “big bang” or in phases. These days the big bang has pretty much been forgotten. Why is that? I think the main reason is the level of risk involved with running a long process and dropping it into the operational environment just like that. This applies to any significant change, whether related to a business model and processes or IT architecture or physical building developments. Even if it all works properly, the level of sudden organizational change involved may stop it in its tracks.

So it has become normal to plan the change as a series of phases. We develop a roadmap to get us from here (as-is) to the end goal (to-be). And this is where I begin to identify the problem.

A few months ago I spent an enjoyable and thought provoking day with Jack Martin Leith (@jackmartinleith). Jack is a master in demystifying clichés but when he announced his irritation with “change is a journey,” I could only respond, “but Jack, it is.” What Jack made me see is that, whilst the original usage was a useful insight, it’s become a cliché which is commonly completely misused. It results in some pretty frustrating journeys! To understand that let’s take the analogy literally. Suppose your objective is to travel to San Diego but there are no direct flights from where you live. If the first step on your journey is a 4 hour layover at JFK, that’s at best a waste of your time and energy. There’s no value in this step. A day in Manhattan might be a different story. We can (and do) deal with this kind of thing for journeys of a day or so but imagine a journey that takes three or more years and all you see on the way is the inside of airports.

My experience has been that the same problem too often manifests itself in transformation programs. The first step may be logical from an implementation perspective, but it delivers no discernible value (tangible or intangible). It’s simply a validation that something has been done, as if, in our travel analogy, we were celebrating travelling the first 1000 kilometers, even if that put us somewhere over the middle of Lake Erie.

What would be better? An obvious conclusion that many have drawn is that we need to ensure every step delivers business value but that’s easier said than done.

Why is it so hard? The next thing Jack said helped me understand why. His point is that when you’ve taken the first step on your journey, it’s not just some intermediate station. It’s the “new now.” The new reality. The new as-is. And if the new reality is hanging around in some grotty airport trying to do your job via a Wi-Fi connection of dubious security and spending too much money on coffee and cookies…….you get the picture.

The problem with identifying that business value is that we’re not focusing on the new now but on something much more long-term. We’re trying to interpolate the near term business value out of the long term goal, which wasn’t defined based on near term needs.

What makes this all the more urgent is the increasing rate and unpredictability of change – in all aspects of doing business. This has led us to shorter planning horizons and an increasing tendency to regard that “to be” as nothing more than a general sense of direction. We’re thinking, “If we could deliver the whole thing really, really quickly on the basis of what we know we’d like to be able to do now, if it were possible, then it would look like this” – but knowing all the time that by the time we get anywhere near that end goal, it will have changed. It’s pretty obvious then that a first step, whose justification is entirely based on that imagined end goal, can easily be of extremely limited value.

So why not put more focus on the first step? That’s going to be the “new now.” How about making that our real target? Something that the enterprise sees as real value and that is actually feasible in a reasonable time scale (whatever that is). Instead of scoping that step as an intermediate (and rather immature) layover, why not put all our efforts into making it something really good? And when we get there and people know how the new now looks and feels, we can all think afresh about where to go next. After all, a journey is not simply defined by its destination but by how you get there and what you see and do on the way. If the actual journey itself is valuable, we may not want to get to the end of it.

Now that doesn’t mean we have to forget all about where we might want to be in three or even five years — not at all. The long term view is still important in helping us to make smart decisions about shorter term changes. It helps us allow for future change, even if only because it lets us see how much might change. And that helps us make sound decisions. But we should accept that our three or five year horizon needs to be continually open to revision – not on some artificial yearly cycle but every time there’s a “new now.” And this needs to include the times where the new now is not something we planned but is an emergent development from within or outside of the enterprise or is due to a major regulatory or market change.

So, if the focus is all on the first step and if our innovation cycle is getting steadily shorter, what’s the value of planning anything? Relax, I’m not about to fire the entire planning profession. If you don’t plan how you’re going to do something, what your dependencies are, how to react to the unexpected, etc., you’re unlikely to achieve your goal at all. Arguably that’s just project planning.

What about program planning? Well, if the program is so exposed to change maybe our concept of program planning needs to change. Instead of the plan being a thing fixed in stone that dictates everything, it could become a process in which the whole enterprise participates – itself open to emergence. The more I think about it, the more appealing that idea seems.

In my next post, I’ll go into more detail about how this might work, in particular from the perspective of Enterprise Architecture. I’ll also look more at how “the new planning” relates to innovation, emergence and social business and at the conflicts and synergies between these concerns. In the meantime, feel free to throw stones and see where the story doesn’t hold up.

Stuart Boardman is a Senior Business Consultant with KPN where he co-leads the Enterprise Architecture practice as well as the Cloud Computing solutions group. He is co-lead of The Open Group Cloud Computing Work Group’s Security for the Cloud and SOA project and a founding member of both The Open Group Cloud Computing Work Group and The Open Group SOA Work Group. Stuart is the author of publications by the Information Security Platform (PvIB) in The Netherlands and of his previous employer, CGI. He is a frequent speaker at conferences on the topics of Cloud, SOA, and Identity. 


  1. Q: What will your company do this year CEO?
    A: I don’t know what we will make. I suppose the same stuff. We don’t plan.
    Q: No new products?
    A: I thought we might do something we have no experience with, for fun. But we did not analyze the market or anything… that would be planning.
    Q: What about your big announced transformation initiative? What is the goal?
    A: Goal? We didn’t plan a goal?
    Q: Will it affect your other worldwide plants at all?
    A: I don’t know. These are all good questions, but we don’t waste money on any planning anymore.
    Q: Do you have the funds to address all of this? Did you lock in funding in the current economic environment for what they say is a several year meandering transformation initiative?
    A: We didn’t plan any funding.

  2. Stuart,

    I’ve mixed feelings about the article caused by your cliffhanger, by recently seeing the movie “The Yes Man Fix the World” and by my own thinking about the relation between architecture, sketching and mapmaking.

    So those are some of my positive (+) and negative (-) stones (feelings) 🙂 :
    – You always need some multiple-step/longer-term planning to obtain resources (as Matt pointed out)
    + Open systems (including their plans) will always need an ability to adapt (fast) to changing circumstances
    – There are differences between doing something creative, something innovative, something unknown or something standard (and One Approach Fits None!)
    -/+ You don’t need detailed plans to design an architecture but you need detailed plans to realize a designed architecture (as we can learn from the film “Sketches of Frank Gehry”)

    I’m very curious how your story will unfold…

  3. Great insigjts Stuart,

    May be you can elaborate to include difficulties that arise if you are not travelling alone.
    I think then there is a new relevant subject: one’s horizon (in time).
    What is the effect if these horizons differ significantly?
    In my experiece there are two factors causing these differences:
    1) One’s tray. Some are used to look far away, others look nearby, still others vary (architect’s tray), still others look behind. Behaviour is led by what you look at and thus what you see.
    2) One’s (genetic) capacity: everyone has a limitation on his/her horizon. If two people discuss within both limits, its fine. If it is outside of one’s limit, it will appear as a discussion with an out-of-space alien.

  4. I understood the post to not debunk long-term planning, but to focus on business-relevant milestones, preferably not to long apart. With business-relevant I mean adding value that is not depending on future (yet to implement) paths. That seems a perfectly valid, more agile approach to enterprise architecture, which helps it to keep in line with the changing business goals, which will only become more fluid in the future.

  5. Thanks for a thought-provoking and articulate article..

    Echoing @RobVens, a key idea for me is the notion of ‘new normal’ – each step-change/project delivered should stand on its own two feet.

    To better support this, I’d suggest a simple thought experiment to apply to each project/step-change – if the rest of the programme/roadmap was cancelled 1 day after go-live, will we have left the world in a better or worse state? Apply a financial, operational and architectural lens to this question.

    Too often these ‘stepping stone’ projects deliver ‘temporary’ workarounds, hence complexities and risks, on the assumption that they will all be sorted out once we hit the mythical end-state.

    While this is all valuable, I don’t think it negates the value of (just enough) planning. Otherwise we end up with the usual mess of quick-wins and hacks that drive up long-term complexity, cost and risk; surely one of the reasons why Architecture was identified as a useful discipline in the first place. Strong governance can mitigate some of this, but without a plan or foundation to back it up, it can be difficult to justify what might seem an arbitrary set of rules. Just pointing at a set of architectural principles typically won’t cut the mustard!

    But yes, we sacrifice ‘short term’ issues at the altar of ‘the big picture’ at our peril..


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