Plans are theoretical

Posted by Marcus Hammarberg on December 9, 2021

I just had an aha-experience that shook me; first I found it interesting, and then I was ashamed that I haven’t realized this before.

Here it is:

Plans are theoretical

Let me tell you how I realized this and how I think it is important.

At </salt> we’re planning to run yet another Graduation Day, after 35 new developers has been created. That is amazing in itself to be part of, but not the topic of this post.

Someone (Sara - excellent co-worker), called me and asked me the following:

Do we have an agenda for the day?

We sure did, but she was asking me a follow-up question:

Will the after-graduation mingle start at 17?

Now, that is a good question but also where theory meets reality. Not Sara’s fault I want to stress but when I realized it.

Because we had written out timings that said that the mingle would start at 17, but I know that it will not be so. The day contains many elements that are uncertain and that may take longer or shorter than planned.

But the plan says 17.00 - Mingle.

Now that in itself is not a problem, since that is “just a plan”, but the problem starts when we start to treat the theoretical plan as reality. For example, starts to say to people “the mingle starts at 17”.

Because what happens if we are ready to mingle at 1630? Now we will have to wait until 17, since that is what the plan said. And we have now told people that “Mingle starts 17.00”.

Plans are theoretical. Work happens in reality.

Now, you might say, but everyone knows that a plan is “just a plan”. But I want to challenge that statement. In my experience most strained meetings have been around the project not being run according to plan or budget (an economic plan).

I have been in several meetings where my teamed have got heat for being “late” (compared to plan), “over budget” etc. - even when the thing we have built is good.

Heck - I have once been in a meeting where we got heat for being early. True story.

All of this because we treat plans as reality rather than theory. The moment we start to work, plans becomes pretty useless. Planning, however, can be good since it can uncover uncertainty early. But, don’t take it from me;

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

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Another objection might be; but we update the plans as we go. To which I answer - “Ok, cool! But why?” To mimic the theory closer to the reality. Why not stick with reality instead?

How? Read on, my friend. Read on.

What to do instead, wise-ass?

Plan, but don’t follow up performance against that plan. Instead, do 2 things; iterate quickly through your work (don’t allow things that takes longer than 1 week to complete) and do data-driven prognosis.

Here’s one simple example I did for myself.

If you want to have data like that for you project I created this template to help you. Still simple - you only need to track start and stop dates per work item.

But, seriously, I just realized that

Plans are theoretical - work is not.


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Published by Marcus Hammarberg on Last updated