The optimal amount of planning

On the wall in an Uber office, painted in bold, confident letters is a General George Patton quote:

“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

In war and startups, I bet Patton is right much of the time. Chaos in the field is high — predictions lose value the farther they attempt to reach into the future. And the action moves fast — wait a week and the enemy will be elsewhere. But there are also cases in which it’s better to perfect the plan for another week. Launching the Apollo 11 rocket with humans aboard? I’ll take the perfect plan next week. Performing an organ transplant? Let’s get it right.

If we mess with the parameters in Patton’s thought experiment, things start to get fuzzy. What if it’s a choice between a good plan today and a perfect plan in 5 days? In 1 day? In 1 hour? What if it’s a choice between a bad plan today and a perfect plan next week? How bad does today’s plan have to be before it’s worth it to wait on next week’s perfect plan?

Product managers have to make this choice regularly. Invest more in planning, or go ahead with what you’ve got? The wisdom in the zeitgeist pushes more strongly towards action than towards planning — we encourage one another to “fail fast”, to “break things”, to “ship it”. And that wisdom is responding to something real: it feels easier, safer, to sit in the armchair a bit longer, to polish the stone a bit more, before getting out in the world and putting things to the test — so we benefit the extra nudge to go.

But in some cases we shouldn’t move fast. In some cases we should make the plan better. We should improve our models more. We should think, analyze, write, discuss, whiteboard, challenge, criticize, and strategize. Some cases call for more planning.

How do we know which is which? This is the million-dollar question. I don’t have an algorithmic solution, but here are some heuristics.

First, simply recognizing that there’s an optimal amount of strategy — which means that in a given case there can be too much or too little — will get us asking the right questions. The “fuck it ship it” mantra will not get us all we need.

Second, consider whether the decision or action is reversible. The easier it is to change your mind later, the more you should lean towards acting rather than planning. The more irreversible, the more you’ll want to perfect your plan. The Apollo 11 crew, once launched, cannot be un-launched.

Third, consider the stakes. What are the implications if you act based on your current plan, and your current plan turns out to be bad? If it won’t matter too much, then go ahead and act. If it’s make or break, lean more towards planning. A bad moon landing plan probably means the crew dies.

Fourth, consider the opportunity cost. If you were to spend the next unit of time acting rather than planning, what value could you capture? If not much, then go ahead and plan. If a lot, then act.

Fifth, consider the chaos. If the field you’re working within is highly unpredictable, then detailed long-term plains will likely go out the window pretty quickly. Get out in the field and learn as you go.

Finally, consider the fact that planning, in an important sense, makes you smarter. When you’re planning, you’re ramifying your mental models of the the world. The more sophisticated and well-articulated your models, the more capable you’ll be of collecting the right data and making the right interpretations as you go along. This will have long-term, difficult-to-account-for benefits. As another legendary WWII general said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”