Fallacies of masterplanning – Is ‘situatedness’ the new planning paradigm?

The only valid action is planned action.

Strategic planning, in common with most forms of master-planning, makes overt and implicit assumptions that a well-devised plan dictates the activity of the organisation it is designed for.  Maxims like ‘if you fail to plan you plan to fail’ have reinforced plan-bias in a generation of project professionals, managers and executives.  Failure of planned projects has often been attributed to human infirmity and inability to execute on the activities that the plan has made explicit, not on the paradigm of action and activity that assumes a priori ordered, linear execution.  It is time planners reconceived planning and their plans.

The very notion of plan as controller of action seems orthogonal to our dynamic, lattice-shaped always-on world.  From TED to HBR we are told constantly how social structures trump hierarchical structures, loose-coupling trumps static arrangements, agile trumps formal, right brain trumps left brain, collaborator trumps dictator.  Sure, you need a plan if you are building a bridge, but the stuff of knowledge work — the design and delivery of a new business service, for example — is subject to very different considerations.  But alternatives to master-planning have themselves been discredited or slow to be taken up.  Of these, ‘situatedness’ stands out as noticeably resonant with the new era of social enterprise.  The undisputed queen of situated cognition (thinking), Lucy Suchman, claimed in her landmark book:

the term situated action… underscores the view that every course of action depends in essential ways upon its material and social circumstances.

Rather than to attempt to abstract away action from its circumstances and represent it as a rational plan, the situated perspective of action studies ‘how people use their circumstances to achieve intelligent action’.  Rather than build a theory of action out of a theory of plans, the situated approach investigates how people produce and find evidence for plans in the midst of their situated actions.  Suchman’s account of islander navigators illustrates the polar extremes of thinking about human action and decisions in-the-moment.

Alternative views of human intelligence and directed action are suggested by contrasting the European and Micronesian approaches to navigation over many centuries.  The European navigator begins with a plan—a course—which he has charted according to certain universal principles.  He carries out his voyage by relating his every move to that plan. His effort throughout the voyage is directed at remaining ‘on course’.  If unexpected events occur, he returns to his plan, and designs and executes corrective action.

Micronesian navigator.

By contrast, the Micronesian navigator begins with an objective rather than a plan. He sets off toward the objective and responds to conditions as they arise in a seemingly ad hoc fashion. He draws upon his tacit knowledge and familiarity with the environment, learned and infused over years or decades of living in the one place. Once at sea, he utilises information provided by the wind, the waves, the tide and current, the stars (without having explicitly mapped them) and steers accordingly. If asked, he can point to his objective at any moment but he cannot describe his course. Vast migrations of peoples in the eleventh and twelfth centuries over huge distances occurred, particularly amongst Pacific islanders, using just these methods of navigation.

The European navigator exemplifies the prevailing paradigm of purposive action. While the Micronesian navigator’s actual course is contingent upon unique circumstances that cannot be anticipated in advance, the European navigator’s path is derived from universal principles of navigation and is essentially independent of the exigencies of his particular situation.

Suchman’s story was based on work performed by Edwin Hutchins, now a distinguished cognitive scientist and ethnographic researcher who validated the reality and effectiveness of the navigational methods of the islanders as a young postdoc in 1978.  One take-away is how different ways of acting are favoured differently amongst cultures—how to act purposefully is at least partially learned and is subject to cultural variation. European culture favours abstract, analytic thinking where the ideal is to reason from general principles to particular instances. The Micronesians, however, navigated in relative terms, learning a cumulative collection of concrete, embodied responses.  They were guided by handed-down accounts combined with memory and experience accrued over years of actual voyages.  Suchman went on to argue that all activity is ‘fundamentally concrete and embodied’ and our responses to situations are both cultural and conditioned.

Micronesians and Europeans both use instruments and work to plans.  It is just that the instruments are of a different kind and the plans have different representations.  All actions, according to Suchman, are situated, and although we like to think of ourselves as drawing on the European tradition of cognition and planning, in reality we all act like Micronesian navigators most of the time.  The argument for situated action hinges on uncertainty.  Circumstances cannot always be anticipated ahead of time and are constantly changing, so we always find ourselves acting in a reactive fashion to some degree.  Our actions as they are observed to play out are never planned in the strong sense in which we expect planning to lead action.  In some forms of design, plans are best viewed as a weak resource for what is primarily a reactive and unpredictable series of decision-making episodes.

Suchman did not deny the usefulness of plans, but claimed that plans should be considered a priori improvisations and post hoc reconstructions of action.  In other words, that there is no strong cause and effect relationship between plans and actions.
It turns out that in many accounts, plans are more useful after acting than as a predictor of action.  It is often only when we are pressured to account for the rationality of our actions, given our ‘European tradition’, that we invoke the omniscience of a plan, or retrospectively and selectively reconstruct our situated actions so that they conform to an imagined or recovered plan, a behaviour referred to by academics as post hoc rationalisation.

When stated in advance, plans are necessarily vague, in so far as they must accommodate the unforeseeable contingencies of particular outcomes and situations.  When retrospectively reconstructed, plans systematically filter out detail that characterises situated actions in favour of detail and actions that appear to align with the plan.

The navigation story also illuminates our assumption that representations of actions (such as plans) can in fact be the basis for an account of situated action at all.  Culturally, acceptance of a causal relationship between planning and action is almost universal, so much so that to question it risks treading on belief rather than fact.  This belief is rooted in positivism and, of course, rationalistic thinking. 

So how valid is a priori planning for knowledge-intensive collaborations today?  Why can’t we just step into the canoe and pursue our goal in relative terms, independently of the structures of pre-ordained solutions or handed-down wisdom?  Are we even capable of disengaging ourselves from our European enculturation for a few moments to consider such a stance?  Come on all you paid-up members of professional project management associations, step up and take a swing at this one…