Natural and Reactive Planning

Posted by Jonathon Arnold on October 20, 2015

Learn to plan from your brain.

In David Allen’s Getting Things Done, he breaks down how our brain naturally plans a project or task.

It’s a very straightforward process on the surface. Your mind figures out what it wants, then figures out how to get there, then unrolls the plan. Despite it’s simplicity, too often we ignore this instinctual methodology and go it our own way.

Let’s review the way our brain approaches a problem.

Natural Planning

  1. Define purpose and principles (the “why” and the “what”)
  2. Outcome visioning
  3. Brainstorming
  4. Organizing
  5. Identify next actions (a key GTD principle)

The act of outcome visioning has a few simple guidelines:

  1. View the task/project from beyond completion.
  2. Envision and define what “Wild Success!” looks like (without naysaying it)
  3. Capture and document those qualities you imagined

This quickly leads to the large chunks of a project and an established “horizon line” to walk towards.

Brainstorming

When we talk about brainstorming, it’s really more about identifying the right questions to ask rather than ideation. Anyone can come up with creative ideas given the right circumstances. A good brainstorming session frames up the purpose and the desired outcome so the amount of false positives is limited.

Mindmapping is a solid way to handle this task, as it allows for a logical flow to the end of a thought. I really love a tool like Omnigraffle for the job, although MindMeister is a nice web-based option with great mobile and tablet extensions.

When organizing thoughts, identify singular components; prioritize them; and identify the sequence of events. Go deep down each rabbit hole

Reactive Planning

The counterpoint to the natural flow described above is reactive planning. The typical emergency meeting or all-hands council is a good example of this style in action. Allen describes this, too:

A crisis emerges: typically, two unstoppable forces are hurtling steadily towards each other and no one’s made a decision on what to do.

The typical response: “Action! Overtime! More workers!” (Anyone familiar with the Mythical Man Month knows this never ends well)

An all-hands meeting is called and the team lays out their options. They take a step back and start ideating on creative ways to solve the problem. The team starts to panic and thinks about what could happen if those two forces collide. A consultant may be brought in, or a new department head, who holds up their hands, calms the room, and smugly asks: “Wait, wait—what are we actually trying to do here?”

This all-hands meeting to pivotal question is actually the same flow as Natural Planning… but completely reversed.

That last moment of perceived brilliance comprises what strategy truly is: what’s the question no one is asking? What’s the one thing that needs to be said? Identify that and the rest of the pieces will fall neatly in line. Put a name to the principles and outcomes of the issue at hand first and the rest becomes logical and clear — and it’s a lot cheaper and less stressful!

How can you change the conversation and move away from planning out of worried necessity to planning on instinct?