Planning horizons in a VUCA world

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The conventional view of planning looks at it from an assumption of a simple /obvious/ clear[1] world that is understandable and predictable. We now understand that the world is generally complex, that we are not able to understand or predicted much of it.

If you are one of the lucky few whose environment is so stable and understood that thinking about it in a simple way is a close enough approximation – as it was for most of us in the past – then good luck to you. But, for the majority of us, the world is accelerating exponentially and this simple approximation no longer works. What got us here will not get us there. So we need to rethink our planning. Planning is essential but plans are expendable. We should do the minimum planning that we can, on the understanding that it is an investment that is going to be changed or thrown away. The greater the volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity of the environment in which we operate, the less we can see and understand, and so the more we should constrain our planning, bringing the horizon closer.

At the same time, we should have some idea where we are going. For all organisations, a vision and some goals that we are working towards are essential to set the direction by which we navigate – often called navigational stars (“North Star, “Polestar” [2]). The more VUCA our world is, the further out we need to set those goals, because the greater uncertainty we have about the path from here to there.

Teal Unicorn produced this drawing …

…to show how we split apart conventional thinking about planning, and have a dead zone between the short-term and the long-term where we are not planning. The greater the volatility and uncertainty the wider this zone is.

Which begs the question : what do we do about the medium term, inside that wedge where we say “don’t plan in here!”?

1) backlogs. We can build backlogs of work and improvement. A backlog doesn’t say we will do something, it says we might. In our short-term planning window we pull work from backlog, which is when we say we will do it.

2) scenarios. It was Andy Cooper who reminded me yesterday about the importance of scenarios. I hesitate to say “scenario planning” because it is a totally different use of the word ‘plan’. Scenario analysis leads to options not decisions. We make the decision as they move into your short term window. Make the decision at the last responsible moment. [3]

3) experiments. We can start experimenting on what we think might be needed in the medium term (based on scenarios), to be prepared.

What we don’t do in that zone is create fixed plans, e.g. projects with WBS and Gantt, which lumber through endless budgeting and approval processes before they even start building.  It is a huge investment which is highly likely to be modified or even thrown away. It is waste – “building last year’s requirements”.

Because our short-term planning horizon is close, we are constantly re-planning: learning from what we built in this iteration; re-evaluating the environment; checking the goals; re-assessing the needs, problems, and risks we are addressing; re-prioritising our backlog; trying new things. This allows us to be nimble and responsive, adapting to a fast-changing world with minimum waste.

These are Teal Unicorn’s fundamentals of agility: iterate, increment, experiment, explore.

We are still working on this model to become another part of our Unicorn Management Model


[1] This is language from Cynefin, where these are synonyms for one of the four regions of this famous model for situational sense-making

[2] At Teal Unicorn we use the term “matariki”, the Māori name for the Pleiades/ Seven Sisters/ Subaru, used by them as a navigational aid for their extraordinary Pacific journeys. Matariki is a good choice because it can be seen from all of the world, and there are multiple stars not just one, reflecting our multiple aspirations.

[3] From the second edition of our book The agile Manager, currently in development:

Agile attempts to do everything at the last “responsible” moment – a concept that comes from Lean thinking. Work goes stale if you do it too soon: things can change before we get any value from it.

The finance industry uses Real Options, a complex mathematical method to determine the value of available options. Using the maths in general business is seen by many as overkill, but the basic principles present us with a different way of thinking about decisions.

Real Options says:

  • identify all the options.
  • we don’t have to choose between making a right decision or a wrong one – we have the third option to make no decision… yet.
  • determine the date by which we have to make a decision, if possible.
  • delay the decision as long as is responsible.
  • push the date back whenever possible.
  • sometimes we hedge our bets and pursue multiple options.
  • collaboration allows us to keep each other’s options open.
  • act quickly once we decide.

    By delaying – and this is key – we retain flexibility. It’s not uncertainty or indecision if we are simply leaving our options open as long as possible.

    People are uncomfortable with uncertainty, and want to make the decisions. We must embrace uncertainty as freedom. Once we make a decision, we tend to become emotionally committed to it, making it hard to change our minds. If we don’t make the decision, we don’t lock in to it.


    Here is a stellar example of scenario analysis.

    Another tool we can use “in the wedge” is Wardley Mapping, especially the synthesis with Cynefin.