Monthly Archives: June 2010

Is planning useful in real life?

I’ve been on holiday, thinking about things I could blog about, and the thing that kept coming up was the question of  whether what I do for a living is of any use in the real world at all.  i.e., in the way that doctors help people who have heart attacks on planes, or psychotherapists can analyse what’s going on in their relationships with their mothers, or chefs can make a pretty mean bacon sandwich on the morning after the big night before.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and come to the conclusion planning is no use at all in real life.  Not in the slightest.

Here are a few reasons why I will not be authoring a self-help manual entitled ‘Plan your life’:

No idea is a bad idea

In a brainstorm, this is true.  My colleagues and I get paid to chat about nonsense and other stuff, y’know, monkeys and the Beano and breadsticks and ice rinks and so on, and we can put ridiculous ideas on the table because 99% of the time, they lead on to other, less ridiculous and usually workable ideas we can put into practice for our clients.

In real life, people don’t brainstorm, and nor do they tolerate apparently crazy ideas.  In real life you are highly unlikely to get away with suggesting something completely left of field.  I wonder whether life would be better if conversations were more like brainstorms.  I’m not suggesting we’d end up with world peace or anything like that, but there might be fewer misunderstandings and arguments if everyone was a bit more open to talking nonsense and considering crazy ideas.


One of the reasons I would have made a very bad academic is because everything takes ages and I’m really impatient.  Being a planner suits me because on the whole, projects are short, and things change on a daily basis.  Real life can be a bit more like being an academic.  We’re in it until we die, so most things seem to take a long time, and it can get depressing if you always want everything to happen right now.  The life lesson here would be balance work and life, and balance the things in your non-work life between the short-term and long-term.  Boring but true.

Objective setting

When we take briefs from clients practically the first things we ask are objective-setting questions, i.e. ‘What do you want this to do?  What does success look like?  Where do you want this to take you?  Where do you want to be?’  These help us identify goals we can then create the plan for achieving.

In real life it’s pretty hard to set and stick to these kind of goals because there’s too much human error involved.*  For example, I have been going to learn German for about ten years.  Success would be me swanning round Berlin like I owned the place.  I have the goal, but the planning’s impossible.  The classes are always at the wrong time, too expensive, or I’ve stayed in bed/sunbathed/gone to the pub instead of going to class.  In this case it might help to account manage my life, but that’s another self-help book.

*It is impossible to set KPIs for much the same reasons.


Imagine if every conversation we had we had to think of what the single most important thing we had to say was…  Actually, that might be good.  I come away from most conversations thinking, “Ooh, what I meant was…” and “Ooh, I wish I’d said…”  However, most conversations would grind to a halt whilst people thought of how to put it in a pithy singleminded sentence that isn’t a strapline, and the world would be a lot quieter and possibly a lot duller.  So it’s not a good idea to talk in propositions.

Some useful things

Having slated taking the planning approach to life there are a few useful life learnings.  For example, knowing your audience.  Being able to listen, and identify the important thing in what someone is saying, even if they’re not sure what they think is the most important thing.  Carrying curiosity backwards and forwards between work and life, and enjoying both…  So it’s not all bad, not at all.

Finally, although this is just a silly list of thoughts I had on holiday, the fact that not much carries across from planning into real life is an important work lesson – treat working as a planner like real life, be flexible about things like propositions and kpis (but not the overall objectives or the freedom to have crazy ideas) and above all be human about it.


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