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Did lack of planning help your pandemic response?

Prof Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, said that his university had spent many years trying to put courses online with little success. Yet, when the pandemic hit, they were able to move all their courses online in a matter of weeks.

This raises the question: did planning prevent his university from successfully changing, and did the lack of planning when responding to the pandemic actually help move things along? Was there a successful response to the pandemic at your organization despite (or because of) lack of planning?


How the pandemic response unfolded

When the pandemic hit there was no time for detailed planning. Companies had weekly or even daily meetings, to figure out what to do right now. In these meetings, they would identify a critical issue, and someone was tasked with figuring what to do—often that someone was very close to the front line.

For example, if a company with many locations had to put in handwashing stations, arrange social distancing, put in some plexiglass screens, and get masks, there would have been limited opportunity to organize everything from head office. Head office would let each location know what was important, would help them where it could, but otherwise left it to them to make it happen.

This scrambling, unplanned approach has a name: agile management.

Planning versus agile

Planning, which seems the sensible thing to do, can run into two problems. One is practical. Often there are a lot of unknowns. Coming up with, say, specific plans with how to set up social distancing at many different locations would be a difficult challenge for a central task force. They would have to get detailed information for each location, see what commonalities exist, study the most effective alternatives, fight for budget, and so on. It might take a year before they could even run a pilot.

The other problem is political. Planning creates an opportunity for people to seek ways to use the initiative to advance their own agenda. Planning can be as much an arena of political manoeuvring as a process that enables getting things done.

In the pandemic, we were forced to be agile. Most of the problem-solving was left to individual units. The units would iterate as things progressed. They would learn from each other, and head office would share what they learned. They would constantly adapt. But the challenge of dealing with, for example, social distancing at a particular warehouse in Tulsa, is much easier for the local manager to figure out than for a central planner to create a detailed response for all the varied locations.

There are seeming inefficiencies in the local approach. Not everyone will come up with a best practice. There will be duplication as various people try to figure out the same problem. Purchasing may not be optimized. The advantage is that this approach was incredibly fast.


No one wants to eliminate planning, however, the lesson from the pandemic is that sometimes planning can be a barrier to success. The pandemic showed that we can move quickly and effectively by tackling urgent situations one by one, and by giving as much latitude as possible to people near the front line.

As a manager, your skill will be in determining just how much planning is appropriate for a given situation, and whether you can apply the lesson of our agile response to the pandemic, to future projects.


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