We spend the first twelve months of our children’s lives teaching them to walk and talk and the next twelve telling them to sit down and shut up.
– Phyllis Diller
What do you do when you need to do something? Anything? Are you the kind of person that says, “We need a plan,” and goes and gets a piece of paper and starts writing things down? Do you believe in goals and objectives and strategies and tactics and action?
Many of us are taught to think this way – it comes from what we’ve learned over the last century – that organized, directed action wins wars. The job is to win and that means doing the analysis, having the plan and getting things done. That’s why the Germans won the war, after all, they had the Schlieffen Plan, a “blueprint for victory” devised by Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, which set out how to quickly get troops to wherever they were needed. Oh, actually they didn’t, which supports the other army saying about plans and their survival when they come into contact with the enemy. And the other saying about plans being useless but planning being essential.
Planning is woven into every aspect of our society but why is that? Is it because plans work or because having a plan lets you off the hook – you can always point to the plan and say, “Well, I followed the plan.” Why do you write a business plan – isn’t it obvious whether a business is going to work or not? Why do you need a plan to get government funding? Is it because having a plan makes it more likely you’ll succeed or is it because governments need to show that they have followed some kind of process before they give you money?
Perhaps it’s because we think of a plan as a sort of roadmap, like physical directions from A to B. If you were given directions to go from one city to another then there is a decent chance you’ll get to your destination if the directions are right. Yes there are loads of ways you could go but if you’re given a route – either using a map, or from someone else or using a maps application – it’s very unlikely that you’ll set off and accidentally find yourself in a different country.
But real life isn’t like that. Rather than a clear destination what you have are possible futures and options you can take. For example, if you wanted to become the President of the United States that would count as an objective, a goal. But if you aren’t an American citizen then that isn’t an option for you – unless you can persuade legislators to change the laws that stop you from achieving your goal. A more realistic goal is to become the President of your own country – there is a route to getting there but what are your options? If you’re 90 and live in a care home then can you really achieve that goal?
The point I’m making is that where you end up depends entirely on where you start and whether there are routes from one to the other. But it’s rarely as simple as a single route. What you have, instead, are options – options you can take now and options that emerge based on the options you take now. For example, if you choose to go to Law school rather than Plumbing school your chances of becoming a legislator go up. This is because the chances of a politician hiring you as an aide are probably higher if you understand how the system works than a tradesperson. That isn’t to say that a tradesperson cannot become a politician – it’s just that the route is different. That person might need to become the leader of a union and get involved in politics and eventually get into a position where they could run for election.
Now, what I was actually going to talk about in this post before I got sidetracked about planning was Ernesto Sirolli and his TED talks. Sirolli is an entertaining speaker and the creator of Enterprise Facilitation. He argues that people, especially Westerners, go into places with an attitude that is either patronizing or paternalistic – looking to do good in one way or another. They come with ideas and technology and money and believe they can solve everything and it rarely works.
Sirolli’s method, on the other hand, is based on going in empty – with no infrastructure, preconceptions or agendas. He goes in and listens, finds out what people are passionate about because, he argues, the one thing that is common to all people is the desire to improve themselves. So find out what people love to do, what they know to do – and then help them do more of it and get the resources they need to make something of themselves. And if they don’t want your help, go away. Find someone else to help.
And I think this has quite a few implications for the world we live in now. The strategies and tactics we use are always designed to fight the last war, deal with the last thing that went wrong. We’ve spent a decade worrying about the global financial system and will probably spend the next decade worrying about pandemics and contagion. None of the planning people did in the last ten years will have really helped deal with the shutdown the world has experienced – no business plan or risk strategy would have seriously considered this option or been ready to deal with it. But now we will create reams of paper, terabytes of digital content on managing pandemics while the next thing will be something completely different.
But how do you deal with a world that could be very different from the images you have in your mind now? The answer is that you don’t. You look at what you have to do next. If you run a hospitality business, for example, the last year has been extremely difficult. And it wasn’t your fault. Governments realized that and gave you help. Now what have you done since then? At the very least, hopefully, you’ve considered your options. You’ve looked at diversification, takeaways, food deliveries – repositioning your business to deal with the changed realities around us. Did any of that really require a detailed plan or was it pretty obvious that you had to do certain things or go out of business?
If you want to do something – like creating a business – then actually it’s pretty simple and I like Sirolli’s model. Ask yourself – can you make something, can you sell it and can you manage the finances? The chances are that you can’t do all three just by yourself so the one additional question is, do you have a partner, a co-founder who has the skills you lack?
If you’re trying to help someone else – it’s the same questions – with one difference. As you listen to what they say and what they’re trying to do you will discover if they need your help or not. And if they don’t need your help, then don’t try and force them to take it because of what’s in it for you. That’s what most people do – and it doesn’t work. As Warren Buffett says, if it’s not worth doing, then it’s not worth doing at all.
Try and develop your eye to see what actually needs doing and you may end up leaving the world a little better than you found it.