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On Predictability and Responding to Change

Choose one. Choose wisely.

An organization that is both highly predictable (the aim of project managers) AND able to easily respond to change (the aim of product managers) does not exist. These capabilities exist in opposition to the other. And, in practice, the relationship is often fraught: project managers become exasperated when the doers can’t (or won’t!) provide a firm date for when something will be delivered; product managers are frustrated because project managers seem not to understand that the future is unpredictable.

We constantly face the challenge of balancing predictability and adaptability. Our evolutionary instinct drives us to seek predictability, but the inherent uncertainty of the world demands adaptability. Both predictability and adaptability have their place, but one must happen before the other is possible.

The Desire for Predictability is Innate

The instinctive desire to anticipate the future comes from the early human need to survive. Those sounds in the middle of the night? It was safest to assume they came from a predator and that we should take evasive action. Our survival depended on it.

Over time, we developed strategies such as astrology, palmistry, numerology, and tarot to interpret events and signs in an effort to predict the future. Today, we add project plans to this list.

We construct narratives to make sense of our environment and inform our actions. However, these narratives can become a hindrance in our unpredictable world. The recent global pandemic, COVID-19, demonstrated this dramatically. The most well-conceived corporate plans for 2020 were obsolete by March - less than 90 days after the arbitrary start date, January 1.

No matter how meticulously we plan, unforeseen factors can, and will, disrupt everything.

Embrace (un)Predictability

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

Mike Tyson

Or did you hear it first as…

No plan survives first contact with the enemy.

Helmuth van Moltke

We want to tell ourselves that the pandemic was an anomaly, an unforeseeable and once-in-a-lifetime event, and that our plans would have remained intact if not for this global upheaval. But was the pandemic truly abnormal, or is predictability the anomaly? As the adage goes, the only constant is change.

Embrace change. It’s consistent.

If we’re honest, our annual plans, even the best of them, never survive intact. New information, unforeseen events, changing priorities - all these ruin the best-laid plans. In pandemic years and in non-pandemic years alike, chaos reigns. The only difference in 2020 was that the disruption had a name, but the result was the same.

By the second quarter of each year, we’re in revision mode - adjusting the budget, the roadmap, or the project plan to account for the unforeseen and unknowable events that have occurred since the previous November.

The alternative?

Shorten your time horizon. Focus only on what’s in front of you. Strive to ensure that every step you take moves you closer to your North Star. Complete today’s work, and have an idea about what you’ll do tomorrow. But don’t hold too tightly to anything beyond that.

World Building and Project Planning

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

The tension between predictability and adaptability is ever-present. It’s important to know when you need a plan, and when you need a compass.

Make and follow a plan when you’ve been there before; when you’ve done this work already.

Examples of places we’ve been and work we’ve done before:

  • Launching the nth client
  • Flying a plane
  • Riding the train
  • Building a house
  • Constructing a wind or solar farm

Use your compass when you’re creating a new world and stepping foot in places you’ve never been before.

Examples of new world building:

  • Creating a new product or product feature
  • Growing something - anything! - beyond where it’s been before
  • Finding product-market fit
  • Solving problems

When you hear someone claim that we only need to plan better, more thoroughly, and our new world building would be more predictable, remember that this order is reversed. Only after you’ve done something can you know how to do it again.

Successful planning requires experience of the work to be done.

In essence, follow your compass to solve problems worth solving. Only once the solution is known and proven should you consider devising a plan to do it again.