Reading Time: 13 minutes

In complex systems it is impossible to know the whole current system, the whole change that will happen, or the future state at any point in time, because the world is VUCA. 

For the last century of management (of government and industry), we used an approximation of the world that said it was simple and linear: a known input gives a known result. Even as we understood more about the complex nature of the world, the approximation worked so long as change was slow enough that the lag between input and output didn’t cause huge errors.  

The idea of simple predictable linear systems no longer works. “Define Once, Execute Perfectly” is a fallacy. The future is unknown. The only way to know is to do.

There are popular sayings that are variations of planning is essential but plans are expendable.  It would be more efficient for us to admit that planning is waste and never create the expendable plan at all.

Even in a regular task, the world no longer sits still predictably. The essential element in planning is now how long a task takes not how familiar it is.

Note we use a narrow definition of planning  to mean defining a specific requirement and a sequence of steps to achieve it, often with a timeframe and milestones.

We don’t mean a strategy, i.e. an approach to the future, which is often called a plan, nor any other open-ended uses of the word.

So if we don’t plan beyond a near horizon of predictability, what do we do?  Develop scenarios. Planning is closed; scenarios are open. There is no need to decide a plan. Decide (and execute) at the last responsible moment. Early decisions are waste: work goes stale when the world changes.

Build a portfolio of as many possible scenarios as you can identify, figure out the potential consequences, and prepare options for them.  There are an infinite number of scenarios but not so many consequences, so we prepare options for those, creating a corresponding portfolio of options – a hand of cards you can play as needed.

Teal Unicorns at work

This page is a work in progress


What is the value of adhering to a plan that was made at the beginning of a project, when uncertainty was greatest?

– Mark Schwartz, Seat at the Table

Predicting the future can only get you into trouble. The task is to manage what is there and to work to create what could [scenarios] and should [vision] be.

– Peter Drucker, 1980


“the traditional ways of planning are outdated. We sense every hour, every day, every week, and react to it.”

– Fernando Gonzalez, CEO Cemex

Here is a thought experiment for you. Some of the more radical thinkers say we should optimise only for now. Do gap analysis only on your current needs, problems, and risks, not future ones. The theory is that you will then automatically follow a best-possible path. This may seem crazy but I can’t fault the logic. Even if we can’t quite cope with that much letting go of the future, it’s an insight. And it may be a glimpse of that future.

All planning is waste.

Here’s another thought experiment. A corollary to the logic of *plan for now” is that all planning for the future is in some way waste. 

Let’s define our term. Plan = sequence of steps with dependencies and timeline, or at least milestones.

It is a well known principle that no plan survives the first encounter with reality. With every step you take you uncover new information. To a greater or lesser extent, new information modifies or even invalidates your planning.

There is another popular saying “Plans are expendable but planning is essential”. What they mean is that even though the result won’t last long, the process of putting it together makes you think about all the possibilities. We don’t quite agree. Distinguish between laying out the steps to be done and scenario analysis.  Thinking about possibilities isn’t planning as we mean it. It would be more efficient for us to admit that planning is waste and to focus on the scenario analysis aspect, and never create the expendable plan at all.

So what of all the plans we do now? Why do we do them?  It’s theatre. It is an illusion to give us comfort that we appear to be in control, that we have some certainty as a foundation on which we can build, some path to go forward.  This feels nice, but it’s a waste of effort and a misleading delusion. I often say to clients “I’ll make up a roadmap if it makes you feel better”.

The main motivator to planning is reduction of risk. The idea is that we should plan to not fail. What we need to realise is that planning the future is not the most effective way to reduce the risk of the future. Too much happens that we didn’t foresee, and too much information emerges that we don’t currently know. There are better ways to reduce risk. For example: 

  • Know how you currently function.
  • Be Agile: iterate, increment, experiment, explore. 
  • Build resilience
  • Create safe-to-fail containment constraints (Cynefin) for changes.
  • Simplify. Do less things. Do things less.

Another thing we need to realise is that zero risk is impossible. You can’t mitigate a risk away completely. It is entirely possible that a seemingly harmless action will start a chain of events that destroys the organisation.  Ask Knight Capital. Failure happens the same way as success: in a complex system you can do the same thing twice and get different results . The only way to have zero risk is to not do anything ever (the bureaucrat’s solution).  And that creates new risks of its own.

But wait, there’s more. Failure isn’t bad anyway. Failure is inevitable. It happens all the time. In fact, it’s a normal part of work. If we don’t know until we do something, then all work is experiment. And in experiments, we will fail regularly. Failure is an indicator that we are thinking, trying, advancing. Success is found under a pile of failure. Lack of failure should be cause for more worry


So if we don’t plan, what do we do? 

Develop scenarios. There is no need to decide a plan. Decide (and execute) at the last responsible moment. Early decisions are waste: work goes stale when the world changes.

In a conventional world, we plan short, medium, and long term, with a long term vision. VUCA drives a wedge of uncertainty between the short and long term. The more VUCA the world, the wider the gap,  so the shorter the short-term planning and the further out the long-term. At Teal Unicorn, pre-cancer-and-COVID we were planning the next year and visioning 2-3 years out.  Now we plan only the next 1-3 months, and envision 3-5 years away. 

So don’t overinvest.

Plan enough to do just enough to learn enough to revise (or invalidate) the plan.  Continue/adjust/abandon/pivot on every iteration.

Minimum viable planning. Outcome or goal-based roadmaps, not feature-based roadmaps. Stories fleshed out just in time.

Plan n cycles in the short term.

“Cycles” might be weeks or months or quarters, depending on context, where n is a very small integer.

How we plan could be anything from Toyota Improvement Kata (preferred), including PDCA Deming Cycle, to Scaled Agile Framework (*shudder*).

Start where you are. Get a deeper understanding of how your value network actually works. Know the flow.

Optimise for now. Be steered by your vision (see below) to bias your choices, but respond to immediate needs, problems, and risks,  not imagined future ones. The necessity for resilience seems to contradict this, as we build future resilience capability, but the need is immediate even if the work stretches out in time.  It’s a polarity tension that we just have to work within.

Choose a target state, that is SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant,  time-bound) or FAST (frequently discussed, ambitious, specific, transparent) . Dave Snowden calls it an adjacent possible. It must be within the future that we can foresee with high levels of confidence, which isn’t much.

Identify the current bounds, or we like the Snowden term “enabling constraints”. What limits should be taken as given and worked within?

Avoid big works. Projects push us into the uncertainty zone. Break them up as much as possible. Iterate increment experiment explore.  Reduce risk, stay out of the VUCA zone.

Shift the mindset of your organisation to product not project. Build around long lived products not transitory projects. This allows change to be in a stream not lumps.

All advance involves risk (so does doing nothing). We must mitigate that risk (minimise blast radius) by

  • Take many small steps
  • Iterate through the steps, repeating a cadence of experiment, observe, learn.
  • Expect failure.
  • Create containment constraints to protect the organisation.
  • Respect all constraints. Work is the art of the possible. Go where progress is easy.
  • Test constraints. Try to find ways through them or ways to move them, if it helps.
  • Decide at the last responsible moment. Act at the last responsible moment. Anything premature increases risk and waste.
  • Explore your way forward together. The future is darkness. Collaborate to illuminate.

Vision n years out.

Who we want to be is much easier to think about than what we want to be doing or where we want to be.

Start with where we have come from.  The Māori people see the past before them and the future behind them. You can’t see the future coming but you can see what has passed. Consider the story that led to where your organisation is now.  Tell each other that story. It exposes so much about who you think you are and who you aspire to be.

Understand what is good about the past, and what you need to let go of. Tradition is both strength and weakness.

Simplify. Don’t try to be too much. Find the essential, the essence of what your organisation represents, what makes it special to you all. That speciality is what will differentiate the organisation:  give it a niche, a purpose, and an advantage.

Your vision of yourselves provides the guiding function for the next step, scenario analysis. It is your navigational star in the distance, not somewhere you want to be in a foreseeable future (especially since we just agreed that we can foresee only a very short time ahead.)

We can then use that single vision to imply principles, and from them derive policy and some strategy. Instead of one navigational star we have a constellation. “North Star” or “Pole Star” never resonated for we folk in the Southern Hemisphere anyway.  At Teal Unicorn, we use Matariki , the Māori name for the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, Subaru. Our principles are our matariki.

I don’t disagree with much of Humanocracy, but “…if your organization doesn’t have a unique point of view about the future, then it doesn’t have a strategy” is wrong. There are many millions of organisations.  It’s hard to see how they could all have a unique vision. Executing better has been a successful strategy since forever. In VUCA times, being more adaptable is another.


In between planning and visioning

is a wide zone of uncertainty. In the space we should understand scenarios, consequences, and options, and the mapping between them.

Scenarios allow us to think about the possible, and expand our minds to those possibilities. Options are a hand of cards we assemble, to play as we need them.

Perhaps the money we save from not doing unnecessary planning will help to pay for the resilience we need in the face of inevitable failures, and for the multiple experiments required to find a way forward in complexity.

This discussion is depicted as an either/or model: plan for short term, then scenarios after some cutoff. Of course the world isn’t that black and white. There is much grey: we can see some future milestones or states that have such a high probability that we better plan for them.


When it comes to the tangible non-fungible world of physical objects that are built once, or big changes to highly complicated abstract systems, sometimes the time span of planning has to be longer, i.e. projects. They are unavoidable. There is a polarity tension between the reality that we cannot plan far into the future and the reality that we have to.

Planning can push into the zone of uncertainty. But do it knowingly and recognise the risks of trying to know the unknowable.


People get uncomfortable that lack of planning seems directionless.

It is not directionless. We have our long-term vision and our immediate mission to help direct us. We have principles – what Teal Unicorn calls “matariki” or navigational stars – to guide our decision making.

We are free to set goals or outcomes or what the military call desired effects within the zone of uncertainty, so long as we understand that they are just flags in the ground can be knocked over at any time.  We can have a roadmap if it is disposable and flexible.

And finally – as we have mentioned elsewhere – there is a school of thought that there is nothing wrong with being directionless, organically responding to the environment in an optimal way, allowing direction to be emergent and adaptive.


A roadmap provides a sense of direction, and reassurance.  The fact is that it is unlikely to come true, so we should make minimum investment, but it serves a psychological purpose, and sometimes exposes dependencies. Build outcome or goal-based roadmaps, not feature-based roadmaps. Show the many decision points and the resultant uncertainty. Don’t draw a “happy path”.


There is a perception that if we are constantly changing direction we must be out of control. Actually we are just abandoning the illusion of control. The cruise control on your car does not allow you to lock in the steering direction for the next 5 km. You are constantly adjusting direction in response to the external environment. But you still know where you are going. And you are also always prepared to adjust your destination in response to circumstances as well, e.g. traffic jams, family emergencies, or a better idea.



We develop these ideas – and others – under the banner of S&T Happens: Surviving and Thriving in a VUCA World. Come see the latest here.