A Handle on the future

Long-term planning may have lost credibility in the boardroom, but there's a better alternative than nihilism: an open-minded optimism.

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Baldrick has a 'cunning plan'. But is it, his master Blackadder asks, cunning enough to have been thought up by the 'Professor of Cunning at Oxford University'? Sadly it is not, but heroes and heroines - from Robin Hood to James Bond - who are imprisoned or trapped usually do come up with 'a plan', demonstrating that they are not only brave but clever too.

Last month, the Scout Movement celebrated its centenary, and one of the key lessons of Lord Baden-Powell, its founder, was to plan any operation meticulously, from the 1899 defence of Mafeking - which made his name - to a 1907 Scout camp in Dorset. At Mafeking, Baden-Powell planned a series of activities to fool his Boer opponents, including having his men mime the rolling out of non-existent barbed wire.

At the same time, as a member of the army scouting division, B-P knew it was often necessary to respond to changing circumstances, and the motto of the Scouts remains, to this day, 'Be prepared'. His philosophy was to combine planning with preparation for the unexpected. The best-laid schemes, after all, 'gang aft agley'.

In business, the 1960s and '70s were the heyday of planning. Large companies would boast a corporate planning department, full of people striving to draw up thoughtful responses to any and every threat or opportunity they could think of. But I bet there's nobody with 'corporate planning' in their job title in your contacts file now. This was a period in which the idea that governmental or corporate elites could control complex systems - the economy, the climate, industries, the housing market - was taken seriously. Just as civil servants and politicians genuinely thought they were running the show, so company directors treated their organisations like machines to which they alone had the controls.

The idea of planning reached its zenith in the communist economies of eastern Europe. Indeed, one of the foundations of the claimed extraordinary Soviet economic growth rates in the mid-20th century was a series of eye-watering 'Five Year Plans' with detailed prescriptions for increases in output in a series of key industrial sectors. But even in free-market Britain, with some of the industries at the 'commanding heights' of the economy - rail, steel, coal - in state hands and an interventionist approach to business and politics, ideas like economic or corporate planning did not sound outmoded, as they do today.

Planning is no longer in vogue in corporate circles, having been replaced by its younger and more glamorous sibling, strategy. It's true that many firms have 'strategic plans', but they are more of the former than the latter. Strategy is the process of setting high-level objectives, deciding areas for investment, speculating about possible futures, equipping organisations for the range of possible outcomes - and hoping for the best. Just as politicians have had to come to terms with the idea that 'events, dear boy, events' can derail politics, so businesspeople have embraced the truth that in an open, free-market, technology-driven, winner-takes-all, mobile economy, the future is hard to predict and five years is a long time indeed. Rather than a rigid plan, most companies now need a set of clear objectives, plentiful resources - generally in the form of skills - and maximum flexibility.

The idea of 'chaos theory', popularised by James Gleick in his 1987 book Chaos, captured the spirit of the age. If a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world can cause a hurricane on the other, then those minutely detailed plans of old seem ridiculous. Instead, corporations need to ride the waves as they come. With the triumph of capitalism signalling 'the end of history' and a waning of any theories that try to explain the world and its works, we have entered a post-modern period. Here, the only certainty is uncertainty and the only constant is change.

At its extreme, the move from a planning to a post-modern mentality creates nihilism: inasfar as the future is knowable, it is dark, and the only sensible attitude to life is a cynical realism - or pessimism - about humanity. The trick for organisations is to recognise that central planning, heads or departments of planning and corporate plans are utopian dead-ends, without succumbing to the vacuity of the post-modern non-alternative. Two of the greatest assets in an era of unplannability are confidence and optimism, based not on a false belief that the future can be controlled but in the knowledge that it can be met, embraced and exploited.

John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century philosopher, abandoned the fixed philosophies of his time but insisted this did not mean succumbing to negativity. 'I know that it is thought essential to a man who has any knowledge of the world to have an extremely bad opinion of it,' he said. 'I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage, and wisdom is supposed to consist not in seeing further than other people, but in not seeing so far.'

The death of planning in corporate life is not, largely, to be lamented. But Mill reminds us not to throw optimism out with the utopianism. Businesses need to be flexible, nimble, agile, open-minded, but with clear goals and resources for uncertainty. The world can't be planned but we can, as B-P wisely suggested, 'Be prepared'.

Richard Reeves is director of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy; e-mail: richard@intelligenceagency.co.uk.

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