Poets and scientists alike, have advocated that dreams are the main driver of life. If you can dream it, you can live it. Dreaming is how the unconscious communicates to the conscious, and through imagination and creativity, our dreams communicate our desires, aspirations and ambitions. They bring to our mind future possibilities that our senses cannot show us. Hence, there is a lot we can learn from our dreams in terms of what drives our decisions, and how we assess the future possibilities that emerge from such decisions. Yet, when observing the seemingly mundane, non-reflected and often inconsiderate way that people and organisations make decisions, I wonder what exactly are we pursuing? What is really driving us and guiding us towards the future?
Not that long ago, perhaps one or two generations back, life was very much laid out for us since childhood. In some cases perhaps, the career, marriage and all other major decisions of sons and daughters were pre-decided by the parents, sometimes even before they were born, wishing only to preserve the long standing values and traditions that ran in the family. Not long ago, a subtle yet abrupt change came about. It is today widely accepted and often desired by parents that the path their children will follow will most likely be very different from their own. In fact, infinite possibilities lie ahead and both parents and children are yet to come to terms with the emerging need to plan. Things are no longer laid out for us and even if they were to be, the pace at which conditions around us change, forces us to continuously revise what we imagine and desire for ourselves. We are therefore, confronted with the need for learning to plan – both in long term and short term.
My interest in planning began more than 15 years ago. I could hardly explain it but had this instinctive idea that planning would form the back-bone of every organisation because it would be all about deciding where to go in the future and how to get there. I would therefore expect planning to be apparent in every decision making. As I began to investigate planning, my first surprise was to find that people across most organisations never actually stopped for a second to think about planning, and often have no idea how their organisation is supposed to develop its own plans. Most people have an intuitive idea of what planning is or what it ought to be, but you would rarely find two people who would agree about the meaning of planning. It is then not surprising that in most organisations, you’ll struggle to find any tangible evidence of whatever planning may be going on.
For several decades now, planning remains strongly aligned with the dominant perspectives on risk and safety. planning approaches are essentially built upon a partial understanding of the past, that is then used to project assumptions towards the future. Planning output is often not more than a deterministic and quantified performance view of some point in the future, which puts these assumptions into practice. Any time it is hardly ever devoted to values, beliefs and visions, and what decisions and actions will ensure that whatever the organisation does in the future, still reflects and translates into practice such values, beliefs and visions.
Documentation of planning tends to exist in the form of business standards and it almost always lives inside information management systems. The striking aspect about such planning is that it almost singly focuses on making sure that accountability and responsibility are not compromised by whatever is decided as a course of action and allocation of resources. Planning approaches are more concerned with not generating risks or accounting for all those that are known, instead of deciding where to go and how to get there. As if such decisions were presumed to be well established and that there is no good reason to debate them.
Only very recently I came to understand how planning is so closely tied to learning, precisely because of the growing dynamics that surrounds every aspect of human life. At some point in time, societies, organisations and individuals could successfully get by without much concern with planning. Long-term values, beliefs were not to be questioned, societal and organisational establishment were set in stone and every person had his or her own place in the grand scheme of things. For some time now, society and family no longer plan out for their members, nor for themselves. Nothing is providing us with plan to be followed, and it is up to everyone both collectively and individually, to devise their own plans.
There is a growing belief that existing planning approaches are mostly the source of fantasy documents that outlay goals and worldviews that are never reached. A shift in planning perspectives is however, far from being entailed. The future can only be imagined, and projecting values, beliefs and worldviews into the future demands significant creativity and imagination. Yet strangely enough, no aspect of creativity and imagination is hardly ever brought into planning. In this sense, planning is about learning how long-range goals and views may shift and how to bring about changes that ensure coherence between actions and the pursuit of goals and views. A particularly important aspect of this learning process is that because we are dealing with values, beliefs and worldviews, learning can only begin with us. Values and beliefs are rarely debated and whenever that occurs, it tends to go down the root of managers or leaders feeding other members of the group with their own assumptions on what those values and beliefs may be or ought to be. Making sense of values and beliefs is inevitably a subjective exercise and without awareness of one’s own assumptions and biases, any debate on such issues is futile. We are thus, far from grasping the true meaning of learning and because of that, even further from understanding the fundamental need and role of planning.
Ultimately, it is about realising that there can be no planning without learning and that planning is the fundamental cornerstone for learning. The idea of “Learning to plan and planning to learn” was brilliantly outlined by Donald Michael in 1997 and to date, remains virtually unexplored. The failure to realise that actual learning must begin with ourselves is the main reason for the stalling of change processes and failed dreams. We are inherently social beings and we learn through our social interactions. The consequence of this is that little learning can be achieve if we don’t begin in the first place, by learning about ourselves and where “we stand in the world”. Only then can decisions be made as to where and how to go from that realised place in the world. In the end, planning is formed by these decisions and at every step through them, we are presented with yet new opportunities to learn about us and the world around us.
Meaningful planning is virtually impossible without this intimate relation with learning and without its understanding as a continuous learning process that begins with us. As we stand, the vast majority of what we see labelled as planning emerges mostly from digesting of some ideal or great achievement that the world projects onto us. How many people around you do you see chasing someone else’s dream? How many businesses do you see merely chasing after their competitor’s performance? Without paying attention to our dreams, we cannot learn or be creative, nor can we become any better at planning.