Planning, Goals, and Uncertainty

People like to stick to their habits. Why? Because it is safer where they are now. Following a routine, a trusted pattern, reduces uncertainty about the future and thus alleviates fear. Everything is plannable and manageable. Tomorrow is safe.

The problem is: The future is unstable and change is inevitable. So each plan you make can only be a rough guess of where you will ultimately end up. Even if you were able to obtain all information there is about a situation, there are still so many factors that are beyond your control that from a rational perspective, planning – especially in a classical waterfall approach – doesn’t make any sense. So why people still do it? Because people like to stick to their habits. And because this is how you do those things as a professional, right? Also, what’s the alternative? You have to have a plan, right?

The reason why plans still work, to a certain extent, is that they invoke change. Not because the plan is laid out so nicely but because you set a goal that describes a state in the future which is not where you are now. And the feeling of control that the plan provides allows us to overcome our fear of change and take the next steps towards our goal, together. What keeps us moving isn’t the plan, it’s the goal.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t plan, or to be more precise, that you shouldn’t obtain as much information about a problem and its context as you possibly can – as if you were making a plan. Because when the future is most likely not going according to plan you have to be well-informed to react to different unexpected outcomes and challenges. So instead of making a plan, start by defining what it is you are trying to achieve, what change you are about to make and set a goal. Then try to generate as much information as possible by talking to stakeholders and users, by building prototypes and testing your assumptions, by exploring new materials and their combinations, by evaluating different contexts, by trying out different content and formats, and anything else that could make your design more resilient and adaptable.

There’s only one caveat: You will need to get comfortable with uncertainty, with moving from one decision to the next without a plan, without routines, without a handbook. This can feel daunting at first. But with your growing knowledge and experience, and a lot of curiosity, you will constantly gain more confidence in your ability to improve things as you go.


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