The World of Planning and Failed Plans

Emine Ebru Arslan
6 minutes

The earliest photo I remember of my childhood is from when I was three years old: My brother was not yet born… I see my mother and myself on the top floor window sill of a four-story apartment building in Erenköy. On the stage are the students of Erenköy Girls’ High School with the large patterned, pleated Sümerbank printed cotton fabric of the divan on which we are sitting, and the students of Erenköy Girls’ High School with their navy blue jumpers passing by on the street, their hair carefully braided on both sides, and the notebooks they carry against their chests. The year is late ’74. It could have been early ’75. Everything I remember is like a scene from the movies Ertem Eğilmez made in those years… My mother is speaking: “My daughter will grow up like these sisters and go to school. Come on, my beautiful daughter, drink your milk now.” A cup of milk in her hand that I resisted to drink, dreams about her daughter on her tongue…

The next photo is the proud school pose I gave to my father on our flowery balcony. Since I waited until I was seven years old to be sent to school, I was bigger than my peers, and therefore I proudly put on my black apron, which would look out of place on me for five years, and smiled at the lens with missing teeth. With my hair in a ponytail on both sides and a pointed “boy’s” collar that I insisted on wearing instead of the elaborate white lace collar my mother knitted for me because I thought it looked more “serious”…

Every memory I have of school after that photo has been infused with my curiosity for planning, a curiosity guaranteed to have been inherited from my grandfather, who, despite being just a small-town artisan, made a yearly work plan for himself. “First, I’ll come back from school, then I’ll do my one page U writing assignment, and then I can eat…” An instinct that I never knew at the time to be called time management, efficient work, planning, but which was carried by genes. The confidence of dividing time into small bites and knowing what to add to each bite. The study and timeplans I made for my friends while preparing for university seemed to contain the prophecy that an important part of my profession would be project management. Although the libertarian Aquarius in me sometimes tickled my more spontaneous and adventurous side, I chose to plan everything about my life.

So much so that if life were not in the hands of a competent scriptwriter beyond our comprehension, I might be inclined to believe that there is something sovereign and slightly divine about planning that keeps all variables under control. Fortunately, it didn’t. The sand castles of childhood were demolished and I witnessed my plans for life being ironically destroyed by an invisible hand. I found myself in the slightly reproachful attitude of Ata Demirer’s naïve Çanakkale boy in the movie Eyvah Eyvah when he says to his prospective lover, “I never make plans because they don’t work.” The disappointment of being betrayed by an obsessive childhood crush…

As if these were not enough, the term VUCA, which started to be used to define the business world worldwide in the 2000s [1] underlined how volatile, chaotic and unpredictable business life is, and dropped a bomb under my business planning building. Trying to plan under ever-changing conditions has become as futile as trying to drain a bucket of water from a boat with a hole in the bottom. 

How meaningful was it to keep planning in a world where everything was changing so rapidly? 

Was it worth incurring so much labor cost for business plans and budgets that would not work anyway and would constantly change? 

Wasn’t the caravan already fixed up on the way? 

Fortunately, many businesspeople, loyal to their old habits, embraced the arguments to turn a violent disagreement with planning into a divorce. After I got over the initial shock, I chose to be the loyal lover who, despite all my betrayals, continued to look after my childhood sweetheart. Because over time, I realized that planning is not a static series of activities, but a lever that structures the mind, provides flexibility of movement, strengthens the link between the end goal and the present, and facilitates resilience in the face of setbacks. The world laid the groundwork for a new model called “agile planning” and helped me repair my damaged confidence in planning. 

The bottom line, I think, is that in work and in life:

  • Plans change all the time. Change is inevitable. We make plans not so that they don’t change, but to structure the mind and keep it clear. 
  • The important thing is not, not to make plans, but to have the flexibility and agility to change them.
  • We must have a long-term goal, a course for the future in this life. Where do we want to go? Why do we want this? What does it mean for us? What are the right steps we should take today on this path? 
  • “Focusing on the moment, living in the moment”, one of the most popular concepts of recent times, does not mean focusing only on the moment and being shortsighted, on the contrary, it requires analyzing the current context very well. Those who analyze well will make accurate, calculated and prudent predictions for the future. In short, living in the moment and making plans are not contradictory as one might think. 
  • Remembering our ultimate goal is the easiest way to stay on the course when circumstances become difficult for us or change unpredictably. As long as we know the why, we can always find a way to change the how.

By the time Montaigne said in the 16th century, “If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable, America had probably not even been discovered for more than 50 years. Of course, today’s technology, economic order and global competition could not be compared with those days, but fortunately, wisdom about the basics of life has no time record. In short, that girl sitting on the window sill of an Erenköy apartment building in the 70s is still making plans. With the belief that planning is the fuel of survival and the knowledge that with planning you can be stronger and more flexible to meet life’s surprises…

[1] VUCA, an English acronym first used in 1987, stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. It was first proposed by the US military to describe the new security environment that emerged with the end of the Cold War. Then, with the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the concept of VUCA was reintroduced by the US military. For the last 20 years, this concept has been embraced by business circles as the acronym that best describes a chaotic business world characterized by rapid change and associated uncertainties.

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