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”. Read more