One feature of the history of ideas is a persistent belief in progress that isn’t disrupted by learning that trendy ideas often turn out to be as flawed as the silliest old ones. Part of the problem has got to be a deficit of reality-testing: how often do you go back to reality-check your expectations, evaluating whether your investment (whether in time, money, belief, or any other currency) in a bright idea turned out to be worth it? How often do we publicly reality-check the advice of blue-ribbon experts?
Earlier this year, I wrote about one such debunking, Daniel Kahneman’s examination of Jim Collins’ business blockbuster Built to Last (Collins’ 2004 book is still high in Amazon’s top 50 business books, so go figure):
[T]he companies chosen as exemplars in Jim Collins’ mega-bestseller Built to Last, a book that contrasts more and less successful companies’ performance, then attempts to explain how to emulate the winners. Only, if you fast-forward a few years after the the time-period covered in Collins’ book, even the winners don’t win. “On average,” Kahneman writes, “the gap in corporate profitability and stock returns between the outstanding firms and the less successful firms studied in Built to Last shrank to almost nothing in the period following the study … the average gap must shrink because the original gap was due in good part to luck, which contributed both to the success of top firms and to the lagging performance of the rest.” All these works that praise winners and purport to reveal their secrets are actually snapshots of a temporary condition, masquerading as a treasure-maps.
So here’s my advice to arts and other nonprofit organizations that are being pressured to invest in blueprint-style long-range plans: don’t do it.
For decades, part of my work has been consulting with nonprofit organizations, especially arts- and culture-related ones. Years ago, a big chunk of this comprised planning: projecting programs, budgets, and strategies into the future, charting five or even ten years ahead in the expectation that we were creating a blueprint that would provide useful guidance for the entire journey. Investing in planning now, the idea goes, allows you to focus on implementation moving forward.
It’s been a while since I stopped doing that type of planning, although people keep wanting it. I just didn’t see the point in a world that is so profoundly shaped by unpredictable forces in pretending that budget projections and careful lists of objectives and tasks were going to be worth the paper they were printed on a few years down the road. The extreme examples are many and easy to name: what good would a five-year plan do an arts organization based near Ground Zero on 9/11, or in New Orleans at the time of Katrina? But even absent calamitous events, who could predict that so many major arts funders of, say, a dozen years ago would drop out of that enterprise, radically change directions, or—given the many emergencies affecting their core base of recipients—decide to consolidate funding for them that’s got?
When organization leaders ask me about planning, I respond by talking about readiness. Are you nimble, self-aware, grounded enough in some respects to take risks in others? There are still plenty of good reasons to work with a well-qualified consultant: the right outsider can help you spot strengths and deficits, making better use of the former and working to remedy the latter. A consultant may have a skill or information you need that is lacking in-house; a skillful, perceptive consultant who isn’t immersed in your organizational culture may be able to spot opportunity you are missing simply because of your ingrained habit of basing future steps on past practices. A consultant can help you design a new program or initiative as a experiment, building in plenty of places to pause, reflect, and renew.
The big risk in conventional planning is that it locks you into a path, making it hard to change nimbly as times and circumstances change. If you buy the conventional planning package, you will likely be faced with the decision between sucking it up and following the blueprint regardless of where it pinches, or discarding it, blowing off the investment, and starting again. Without the need to be loyal to a blueprint, you can change course whenever needed, experimenting with a few different directions while remaining alert to opportunity and tracking the consequences of your choices.
Yet I still run across consultants who are out there hawking five- and ten-year plans, and organizations whose leaders have been told—sometimes by funders—that something is missing without them. Of course, there is a vast body of management literature that touts the value of planning, reinforcing this.
I’ve been reading Nassim Taleb’s new book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, and despite the usual complaints of arrogance (which cannot be dismissed: the man is indeed arrogant), I’ve been loving it even more than The Black Swan, which I adored. I’m sure I’ll want to write more about it later, but for now, I would commend anyone who is impressed by the literature of planning to Taleb’s point in a chapter entitled “Lecturing Birds on How to Fly.”
Throughout the book, he shows how mere correlations have often been mistaken for cause-and-effect. For example: despite vast investment in systematic pharmaceutical research, most truly useful drugs were discovered by trial and error, often leading to primary uses that had nothing to do with their invention. (Viagra came out of research into high blood pressure; that was Minoxidil’s first use too, but it is much more widespread as a treatment for baldness; and so on.) In the chapter in question, Taleb points out how we tend to believe in an arrow of causality from academic research to applied science and technology to practice, when much more often it is the opposite: people discover something through tinkering and trial-and-error, then academics study it and provide explanations assumed necessary to the discovery. To illustrate, he suggests a thought-experiment:
Think of the following event: A collection of hieratic persons (from Harvard or some such place) lecture birds on how to fly. Imagine bald males in their sixties, dressed in black robes, officiating in a form of English that is full of jargon, with equations here and there for good measure. The bird flies. Wonderful confirmation! They rush to the department of ornithology to write books, articles, and reports stating that the bird has obeyed them, an impeccable causal inference. The Harvard Department of Ornithology is now indispensable for bird flying.
You could say I love Taleb’s advice on planning so much because it exactly mirrors my own, but then you’d also have to stipulate that my own advice is derived from two fairly indispensible ingredients: a long stretch of on-the-ground work with organizations and a disinclination to take money for work that isn’t worth the investment. He’s talking about businesses, but his advice applies just as aptly to nonprofits:
(i) Look for optionality; in fact, rank things according to optionality (note: he means keeping your options open, seeking opportunities with multiple possible positive outcomes), (ii) preferably with open-ended, not closed-ended, payoffs; (iii) Do not invest in business plans but in people…one gets immunity from the backfit narratives of the business plan by investing in people. It is simply more robust to do so; (iv) Make sure you are barbelled, whatever that means in your business. (By “barbelled,” Taleb means being very conservative and very aggressive at the same time: do all you can to secure stability with low-risk investments—for a nonprofit, perhaps this translates as effectively maintaining your most successful and attractive programs—but leave yourself a meaningful slice of resources for high-risk opportunities with potentially big payoffs.)
Happy new year, everyone! My resolution is to avoid mistaking correlations for causes and continue subjecting our modern superstitions to scrutiny. Wishing you a 2013 of clear sight, free of theoretical nonsense, and full of the freedom to learn from experience!
A great Little Feat version of Alan Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down,” a remedy for hubris.