“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”
- Yogi Berra


We often think of planning as something that happens in our minds, or something we write out on paper, or something we discuss with a friend. We might say planning comes logically before action. We plan to go to dinner, then we do it. We plan to study for an exam, then we do it. We plan to buy a puppy, then we do it.

But could anything be further from the truth? Sure, conscious action always comes with some intent or goal in mind, but most planning and decision-making doesn’t come before action, it happens during action. Action itself is the final manifestation of our plans.

We plan to eat dinner with a friend, so we call up that friend, we compare schedules, then we agree on a time and a place. But after we hang up the phone there are still many decisions left undecided: where will we sit in the restaurant, what will we eat, should we have dessert, how will we split the bill, how much should we tip, etc. These are all important decisions in regards to “eating dinner,” yet it doesn’t make sense to answer these questions before we get in the car to go to the restaurant.

That planning needs to be decided on later. We may have a rough idea on how we will split the bill or what we will eat, but these things are subject to change depending on our mood and other factors, so we don’t set those plans in stone. Other decisions we can’t even speculate on until we have more information; for instance, we can’t know how much to tip until we know what the bill is. And, similarly, we can’t choose where to sit in the restaurant until we are actually there and know what tables are available.

All initial planning faces these limitations and uncertainties. As humans, we are neither infallible nor omniscient – we can’t predict the future – and circumstances are impermanent and always changing. Yet, despite these limitations on planning, we must do it, just as we must adapt our plans and fill in the details as they are carried out, and as new information becomes available.

In theory, plans are always static, they don’t actually get us anywhere – they are only a blueprint of what may come. In practice, plans are always evolving moment-by-moment, and they change as we get to more advanced stages.

Tim Ogilvie, CEO and co-founder of AdBuyer.com, stresses this point in a great lecture at the Yale Entrepreneur Institute in 2009 called “Start-up Keys: Test, Verify, and Iterate,” (this is a link to the audio from iTunes University. It is free, but you will need iTunes before you can listen to it).

His most applicable advice was simple: “Your plan isn’t going to work… so you shouldn’t spend a whole lot of time planning,” instead, “create a plan, launch something, and then test some of the assumptions you set out in your plan. There is no question that all the assumptions you set will not play out. The most important thing you need to do is figure out which ones did play out, and which ones didn’t. And then, using all that information, ask, ‘How does that change my plan and what do I do now?’”

Although Ogilvie was specifically speaking to entrepreneurs, I think this advice holds true for all forms of planning, whether you are a student, a parent, or a manager of a baseball team. You cannot know the full scope of your plan until you look back and see how it all actually unfolded. Good planning therefore requires more than just following a blueprint, it requires conscious in-the-moment adaptation.

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