The Perils of Reactive Planning

“By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail”
– Benjamin Franklin


Such is the popularity of this famous quote, it was even used on ITV’s Love Island this month! But when it comes to the practical application of this quote, we see too many examples of the wrong type of planning.

In a recent LinkedIn post, Source team member Richard displayed a TED talk by David Allen.

The talk covers the natural and unnatural planning model and the impact of reactive planning “it’s not a matter of whether you do the natural planning model, it’s when and at what cost” – David Allen.

We thought we’d ask Richard a few questions on his past experience of reactive planning.


So, you’ve mentioned you’ve experienced the reactive planning model, do any examples spring to mind?

The reactive planning, I have experienced in previous roles has caused a lot of stress. It’s hard to pinpoint one example, as this mind-set creeps into every aspect of a company if it’s not recognised; and soon it’s the norm.

When David Allen was talking he speaks a lot about methodology and ‘getting things done’ or GTD for short. He often says “we can’t reduce the amount of workload that much, so how do we deal with it?” His first policy is “get it out of your head”. Our brains are for having ideas not keeping them.  If you try and store everything, you don’t allow space to think.  If you continually keep “what’s happened before” thoughts, it causes a reaction, resulting in a big panic when something has gone wrong or something is perceived to have gone wrong.  When we panic we don’t go for natural methods like brainstorming. A lot of the time people say “we’ve got to do a spreadsheet”, but there is no room for dumping ideas and then sorting them, it’s always got to be a perfect formed plan first time around.

Politics plays an awfully big part of it too. Politics is an essential part of governing anything, but when people aren’t thinking straight they’re not thinking “how do we get this done” they’re thinking “how do I cover myself” because someone else is going to see this. They may as well forget about it at that point, they have lost the purpose, the objective, the why, and they are just panicking to get anything down. On the surface, they think they have to go in a certain direction to get things done but in reality, they are going in the opposite direction.


How did that lack of planning make you feel in the work environment?

In 2013 I was overwhelmed, and that’s when I lost my hair! It was quite traumatic, but I didn’t feel the trauma until it came to a head one day (pun unintended), and the stress just broke me.

Over Christmas, I went to my then girlfriend’s house (who is now my wife – bless her) and I was having a shower. I looked at my arms and I thought how am I growing all this hair? I thought I was turning into a werewolf! I touched my head and all my hair was just coming off and it was just the stress. You can get to the point where there is so much waiting and demand on your attention and don’t know where to start.

There’s the stress aspect but there is also the aspect of feeling like I am always doing the wrong thing. For every one thing (I was doing), even if I was doing it right, there were 15 things I wasn’t doing, so, my mind was on those other things and not the task in hand.


What would be your top tips for creating a healthy planning environment?

If you have a trusted system for managing what work you have, you should be able to dump what’s in your mind into that system, whether that’s on paper or in an app. You should put it there to be able to focus on what you’ve got to do. So the first thing they do is what David Allen calls the “mind sweep” – take some time to list everything you’ve got to do and then you organise it, putting it into projects (which is anything that needs more than two steps). Organise it that way and identify your next actions and just work through that.

The way I work now is definitely agile; it’s good as a way of working. I think we have to take responsibility for our actions too – my manager makes it clear what needs to be done but he leaves it to me to prioritise.  If I have too many projects and I don’t know what’s important I can go back to my manager for guidance.

Involve other people for decision making too.  At Source I get the sense of what is more important as they explain why something is needed. We know what we are supposed to be doing but we don’t always know why.  Having the context and the bigger picture helps to alleviate the panic and feeling of being overwhelmed, and this allows you to think clearer.