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Hurricane Coming: Improvisation vs Planning

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| Our Hours Lie Over the Ocean ?

September 22, 2005

Hurricane Coming: Improvisation vs Planning

Michael Mandel

With another killer hurricane about to hit the U.S., I want to note that Arnold Kling has two very relevant essays on how to deal with disasters, wars, and other high-uncertainty events. The two essays are The Impossibility of 'Planned Improvisation' and The Planning Illusion. Kling writes:

I think that people have a tendency to put too much faith in centralized planning, and they do not have sufficient regard for decentralized improvisation. The more ambiguity that exists in a situation--because of its novelty, uncertainty, and the absence of critical information--the more that it favors improvisation over planning.

He goes on to say:

When something goes wrong, there is a natural desire to blame a lack of planning. In fact, with hindsight, it is always possible to come up with a plan that would have worked better. I would refer to this as the planning illusion. This illusion causes a number of problems.

First, the planning illusion leads to the syndrome known as "planning for the last war." Organizations develop a set of operating strategies that are based on theories that are outdated, or just completely misguided.

Second, faith in planning causes organizations to become overly centralized. Information from peripheral sources is ignored. Flexibility for field-level decisionmaking is denied.

Finally, faith in planning leads people to believe that government has a solution for every problem. In many cases, better approaches emerge from decentralized improvisations.

And concludes by saying:

My sense is that we live in an age where ambiguity is on the rise, because technology is changing rapidly and globalization has increased the speed at which opportunities and threats materialize. This suggests a relatively greater need for improvisation and adaptation, with somewhat less value in bureaucratic planning. Unfortunately, the planning illusion seems to cause many people to long for a government approach that is more centralized rather than less.

11:57 AM


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Hi Dad. It's me, your daughter. Your blog is very cool. Good job keeping up with the new technology. I have to go finish my history homework now. Everybody comment because my dad's cool, well, most of the time! :-)

Posted by: Laura at September 22, 2005 07:32 PM

Great thoughts on high-uncertainty scenarios.

Laura's right.

In fact her dad's blog is the saving grace among the other blogs on BW online.

Posted by: Jason Kerr at September 22, 2005 09:48 PM

Being totally dependent on the plan is as bad as not having a plan. Plans are the starting point from which you move forward. Preposition your assests. Provide everyone with a full understanding of their role, proper traning and the tools and authority to carry out the job. Then stand back and watch how things unfold and move quickly to fill in gaps that occur. There will be few if you've done your job... the folks on the ground will take care of it.

On the other hand, if you pretend you have the assets but you don't, if you strip away the trained people and replace them with amateurs, if you ignore problems while they are small and solvable and simply hope and pray they'll go away... well then you get 9/11, Katrina, Rita, Falujah etc. etc. etc.

Things are going to get a LOT worse before they get better. We must elect and appoint leaders in this country before our citizens get so sick of the incompetence that they vote a Mussolini or a Hitler into power. We cannot afford to continue to put politics first and competence second in the vetting of people for leadership positions. Enough people have already died. Rita has already scored its first victims in Texas and it is still 220 miles offshore.

It's the incompetence, stupid!

Posted by: Frans Bouman at September 23, 2005 12:41 PM

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