A Plan B Approach to Planning

When Ergun Çoruh, blogger-in-chief at Negative Matter, advised always have Plan B, it resonated. He said

…the reason why plans do not work is because they don’t work like Feynman’s sum of histories. A plan is just a single historical path. Any divergence from that path creates a new future path, and more possibilities for further divergent paths. Like in quantum mechanics perhaps we should treat macroscopic events occurring in space-time as “sum of histories” and learn not to be hard on ourselves. What is happening “now” is just an outcome of a probabilistic experiment, not a certain thing. There is no certainty really, just as there is no platonic triangles with invisible zero-width lines. Plans always fail, the degree of failure varies.  ~Ergun Çoruh, 14 October, 2009

Software development has long agonized over plan A, and given short-shrift to plan B. I will heed and amend Ergun’s wisdom by resolving to

Not fret so much about Plan A.  And, assume I’ll need a Plan B.

David Koontz, blogger-in-chief of David’s Agile Complexification Inverter, made this amusingly ironic comment on my Map & Terrain post

I had a sailboat that had the tentative second name of Plan B – had the lettering all done on a decal, but then decided we liked the original name and never changed it.

Sailing is an instance where one has much riding on Plan A, while Plan B could save a life. Tacking on David’s course, Software QA engineer Chuck said

Sailing could probably lend many a metaphor to agile, since there’s a heck of a lot of “adapting to conditions” that goes on. You might for example have planned on light winds, and put up particular sails, but then the winds change and you have to change to a storm jib (e.g., reduce sail).

And as someone that’s stood out on a yard-arm, some 100′ above the ocean, in a gale, working alongside a bunch of other hands to reduce sail, I can tell you it’s a hell of a lot easier to do if you notice the need for change early, than if you find yourself reacting after you’ve been surprised because you failed to notice conditions where changing.

I could tell fish stories, but my sailing prowess sums up to tacking shallow Gilfillan Lake in a tiny cockpit-ed, single-handed Sunfish.

Chuck got me thinking about mindfulness. Mindfulness, an essential part of Gestalt therapy, is continuous, razor-sharp awareness of the moment. Mindfulness is a level of clarity of mind that allows thoughts and judgments to smoothly flow without dragging our keels on our fears, notions, and delusions. It is challenging to train one’s mind to stay continuously in a state where interpretations, speculations, and projections don’t hinder. For some, mndfulness it is a life-long practice.

The practice of mindfulness leads me to a fledgling approach or philosophy, if you will.

Edging Toward A Plan B Philosophy

I suspect it is possible to practice an explicit acceptance of the unexpected. Rather than trying to make better guesses and more accurate predictions, perhaps we seek an approach (or favor approaches) that have a reasonable chance of influencing desired outcomes no matter what chance hurls our way. American author Tom Robbins observed,

A truly stable system expects the unexpected, is prepared to be disrupted, waits to be transformed.  ~Tom Robbins

If it is possible to adopt a mental posture that expects the unexpected, and if it’s possible to practice that mental posture, then we might find, as golf legend Arnold Palmer intimated,

…the more I practice, the luckier I get ~Arnold Palmer

3 thoughts on “A Plan B Approach to Planning

  1. Thank you for encouraging comments Bob. As usual you eloquently wrapped up the central concept and enriched it with beautiful ideas.

    What puzzles me is this. Human nature is a strange thing, when failure hits there is always a danger of mood swing. When the purely selfish and devastatingly strong human subconscious realm sees itself in danger it knocks out the team-self in split second and a blame game can easily inflame from it.

    How do we learn holding this beast? How do we learn there is no point in this? Do we need to ban the word “failure”? Or should we embrace it and/or redefine it, but how?

    It seems that the fear from failure is the biggest obstacle than the failure itself. The ancient selfish gene that saved us countless times from wild animals seems enormously powerful, and our super-ego seems hopelessly frail and withdrawn if “failure” is interpreted as “danger”. To be honest I am pessimistic. At times I despair that there is a limit on what can be changed in human nature for the sake of goodness.


  2. I dunno. What if we decided failure was nothing more than an adjustment indicator? Or a “check engine” light on the dashboard? Not sure of the best metaphor yet.

    There was a tweet yesterday from @agilebench of a marginally cutesy, but applicable quote “Progress is a sequence of best wrong decisions” ~Dave Thomas


  3. @ Ergun I think it is not just the word “failure”. It is also the cost of it. The less it costs the more acceptable and unnoticeable it is. And if it costs nothing – “we can practice failure more often” (I think I heard it agileee discussion). And then it comes the to the attitude towards it which matters.


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