Planners & Searchers: Make Them Best Buddies

In The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly examines the failure of western aid in developing and poor countries with this example:

In a single day, on July 16, 2005, the American and British economies delivered nine million copies of the six volume of the Harry Potter children’s book series to eager fans.

This is an amazing effort and also raises the question: why is the West, after spending $2.3 trillion dollars over the last five decades, not able to get twelve-cent medicines to children to prevent half of the malaria deaths in developing countries? Easterly’s short answer – two solution styles:

The twelve-cent medicine is supplied by Planners while Harry Potter is supplied by Searchers.

He goes on to discuss the specific skills of Planners and Searchers:

A Planner thinks he already knows the answer; he thinks of poverty as a technical problem that his answers will solve. A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answer in advance… A Searcher hopes to find answers to individual problems only by trial and error experimentation. A Planner believes outsiders know enough to impose solutions.

His conclusion on how to handle the complex issue of Western aid to the poor countries:

The right plan is to have no plan.

That made me wonder: What does this mean for managing successful projects in the business world on unknown ground such as developing new apps, accessing markets in China or running complex software projects? Can we eliminate the Plans and the Planners and trust that the Searchers will lead us to success? I remembered talks about product innovation at SXSW 2012 in Austin, discussions about trial and error approaches and agile software production methods like Scrum, and a lot of exiting articles and books about innovation, and I thought my answer should be “yes”.

But let me talk a little bit about my experiences from my former life as a television production manager for global sporting events like the soccer world cup.  A small, experienced team usually organized the production, including hundreds of people with well-equipped flight cases and a lot of logistics. I had so much trust in our two lead technicians that I could promise to broadcast live from any corner of the world.  One of them, let’s call him Tim, was a Planner.  The other, let’s call him Jerry, was a Searcher.

Going live on the air, thousands of puzzle pieces have to fit together. We prepared at least two years for some major events: writing contracts, booking hotels, getting the equipment packed into containers and delivered to the right place, at the right time. But no matter how long and how well the Planner planned, on-site he always needed the Searcher to make things happen.  Jerry, the Searcher, was able to cope with uncertainty during both big and small events. He had the skill to solve challenges that were completely unforeseen.

If he had to cope with a power shortage in the middle of nowhere, he found the local guys who could switch off the lights in the southern districts in order to balance the power so that the TV team at the soccer stadium could run their equipment.  And he found out which high quality Vodka was required to make the deal.  We used to say that if necessary, he would be able to build an Outdoor Broadcast Van out of a water boiler—if he had enough gadgets from Radio Shack. But however flexible he was, he needed the Planner’s infrastructure and careful preparation in order for the team to benefit from his skills. The Planner and the Searcher needed each other.

TV Crew

Chicago 1993. Preparing the uplink for the Soccer World Cup

I believe this to be true for our agency, as well, with client projects that will continue to grow in complexity and in order not to fail our production style will have to be much more iterative than in the early days. We must make the Planners and the Searchers best buddies. The results of many of our projects are open and not clearly defined in the requirements specs. The markets are uncertain. If you go to Europe as an American entrepreneur or to the US as a European one you may know some things that are important to succeed. If you go to China you may find out that you hardly know anything – at least I did. And I needed a Searcher’s mindset to find out what Chinese customers want and need.

A plan will help you if you know what a plan means in an uncertain world. It is only a piece of paper, which often needs to be adapted and changed. And you better be prepared for Plan B! The planning process as such makes you think about risks and helps you prepare to handle them. The plan always contains the Planner’s experience.

“Plans are nothing, planning is everything” said Dwight D. Eisenhower. Well, I would argue a good plan considers the Planner’s failure of the past, which is at least something.

My plan for the future: If I have to go the uncertain path, I will do it with a Planner’s mind and a Searcher’s heart.

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