Planning Futility

I recently attended a talk given by a young lady from our church who hiked the Appalachian Trail last summer. She started in Georgia in March, walked 2100 miles northeast, and finished in Maine 180 days later. She spent months planning the trip. She had to carry everything she would need for half a year. She wanted to know where she was going to stay for the first week, how far she’d walk each day, how and where she would eat, and what she would do in case of emergency.

On the first day of her trip, she didn’t get as far as she expected. The second day, she lost more ground. By the third day, she threw away the itinerary entirely and decided to take it day by day. She finished the trip about a week later than she expected, but still in plenty of time to safely complete the journey before winter.


393515828_4685124984_zOn the flight to Africa in 2009, we had a team meeting. Our task was to plan the first day of our Education Beyond Borders workshop at Liwa Primary School. We had spent the last four months planning for the trip, but now that we were actually underway, we had to put our sketches of ideas into concrete plans. By the time we landed in Cape Town, we had a very good idea of how the first day was going to go. The next day, we scrapped those plans and started over, planning for the Monday and Tuesday session. After Monday’s workshops, we scrapped Tuesday. On Wednesday, we switched gears quickly, entirely changing the focus of the rest of the week. It was a common theme to our African workshops, and we would repeat that process several more times that summer.


Chris Hadfield is the author of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. In that book, he talks about being prepared. Astronauts have to make split decisions in life-or-death situations that often determine the success — or disastrous failure — of their missions. The best way to survive is to always be thinking, “what’s the next thing that can kill me?” Figure that out, and decide how you will deal with it if it happens. NASA has manuals and checklists and procedures for every possible contingency. Astronauts spend years training for every task that may be required of them. And yet, even with all that planning, the unexpected happens on a fairly regular basis. Chris tells the story of his first spacewalk, when he suddenly found that something was in his eye and he couldn’t see. There was no checklist for that. Mission control had to think on their feet, and came up with a solution that solved the problem and still managed to accomplish the goals of the spacewalk.


How often have we carefully planned for something, only to cast that planning aside in the end in favor of “winging it”? As a teacher, I found myself doing this all the time. I would plan some fantastic lesson, only to scrap it mid-class because it didn’t work the way I had intended. As a technology coordinator, I’ve planned all kinds of initiatives. A few of them went off without a hitch. Most evolved, morphing into something better. Some were scrapped entirely.

After a few examples, it’s hard to resist the urge to forgo the planning entirely. If we’re just going to end up ignoring the plan, why go through the effort at all? Yet, when I go into something cold, completely unprepared, the outcome is always much worse than it would be if it were planned.

I know. “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” You were expecting to read that in here somewhere. Or, if you’re in the other camp, “the best laid-schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” I try not to disappoint. You’re welcome.

But I find that my best work comes when I have a lot of time to plan. I think through things, jot down some notes, and put it away for a while. A few weeks later,I dive back in, revise the ideas, take a few more notes. Then put it on the shelf. If I have a few months or a year or a couple years, the iterations continue. What should professional development look like? Do you really think the wireless network is going to be sufficient to meet our needs in five years? What happens when a student accidentally (or intentionally) breaks a laptop? How are the teachers going to reflect on and apply the learning that’s coming from this initiative?

I have checklists. I think through the contingencies. I get second opinions. And third opinions. And then, when the time comes, I scrap the whole thing and make it up as I go along. It’s not the result of planning that’s important. It’s the process. It’s identifying potential problems and anticipating what can go wrong. It’s the development of those critical thinking skills that force me to take an analytic look at the topic. Having planned, I have the confidence to be flexible. I can adapt to changing needs because I’ve thought through things. And even if I get the details wrong, I’ve developed the toolkit to allow me to think on my feet. As it turns out, that’s better than any checklist could ever be.

Photo credit: Stefan Insam on Flickr.

One thought on “Planning Futility

  1. I can identify with both sides but I prefer to plan. Basically, I write stuff down and then visualize how that would look. Then I scream and rewrite it. That saves me a lot of heartache and has saved kids heartache, as well. Of course, I do get things in my eyes….

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