If I don't know what the future looks like, how can I plan ahead?
April 20, 2012 9:10 AM   Subscribe

Tools for visualizing the interim steps of long-term goals, when there's no established model for the long term goal? Longer description inside.

I was recently reading an article about a political author that published a little-seen but controversial piece of writing. Regarding the piece, a critic said, "It reads like a job application for 2016."

And I thought, "Horseshit. That wasn't the author's plan. 2016? Nobody plans out that far for something that only might happen."

Then I caught myself. "Well, wait. 2016 is four years. Everyday people plan four years in advance all the time. For example, medical school is four years*. People that want to be doctors do this."

Then I had another thought. "Yes, but at least with medical school, there's an established process. Someone has thought about the medical school curriculum. They know you're going from point A to B to C, and if you work hard and pass all the tests, shazam, you're a doctor."

So, what was this author/political figure thinking? Was it really the interim step of a "job application" for a higher political position in 2016? What was the critic thinking? Do people do this?

Which brings me to the question:

What are the tools used for visualizing the interim steps of long-term goals, when there's no established model for the long-term goal? When people plan ahead without a model, what tools do they use?

* Spare me the details or corrections. It's just an analogy. Go with it.
posted by Cool Papa Bell to Grab Bag (6 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I've had to make several plans with a "here I am now and where I want to be is many years out" situation, and I used mind mapping to fill in the steps in the middle.

After getting an idea of what all of the milestones and tangential steps might be, then it was just a matter of making it a plan and treating it like any other project.
posted by batmonkey at 9:31 AM on April 20, 2012

This book is written for people who would like to build and use scenarios, and also for those who want to enhance their scenario thinking skills. We visualise our audience as people who are curious by nature, who want to make a difference, and who are highly motivated to acquire a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them.

Scenarios: An Explorer's Guide (PDF) - Shell Corporation

Critique of Shell's approach
posted by infini at 9:31 AM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was taught to do this in school in preparation for a career in the arts, which is sort of like politics in that while there is no one established process, there are many possible routes to success that can be studied, copied, or imagined. The method was a five year plan, where you start with where you want to be in five years and then break down where you would have to be in 2.5 years in order to get there. And on and on in increasingly smaller time frames and goals. So if you imagined being elected President in 2016, you'd figure that by 2014 you'd need X amount of funds raised, and whatever amount of name recognition, and however much support from certain groups or individuals, etc. And so by 2013 you'd need to have achieved whatever smaller steps would lead half-way to that stage, etc. So yeah, I could imagine someone using "write article, get publicity, become known as expert in controversial political issue" as the first of many small goals leading up to a larger one of being elected to a certain office. (The process, I mean, not the exact details.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 9:49 AM on April 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are a bunch of ideas around all this.

Learning 1, Planning 0 is a good pointer to start thinking about the issues.

Learning to Plan, Planning to Learn says a bit more.

Rational Analysis for a Problematic World is a nice survey of various more-or-less structured methods.

If you'd like to learn about what math approaches to this might look like there is Real Options theory, and here's a discussion of the problems of applying it in practice. (It does have a correspondence with financial options theory, which might give you some idea of how it's possible to screw up royally using this kind of thinking. But, I think still valuable ideas, that have a lot of relevance for example to how venture capitalists go about what they do, such as making lots of small bets, seeing how things pan out, and progressively increasing their bets as they see what is really working out.)

But when you're dealing with people, even just yourself, emotions matter as much as analysis. What can you buy into? What can you get committed to? What will fire you up, and bring out the best in you? There's no point having a theoretically great plan that no-one is going to get behind and make happen. Some of that is covered in this book chapter from Living Strategy.

While the reality might be that the future is uncertain, maybe you need with one part of your brain to believe that the path is certain and you'll surely achieve your goal. While all the time another part of your brain knows that it's not such a sure thing at all and to be scanning all the time for things that are coming down the line that could derail your plan completely. Successful entrepreneurs often seem to have this kind of split-personality thinking. Smart Luck has some interesting stories about that.

Nobody plans out that far for something that only might happen

Maybe the word is not "plan". But as per my last paragraph, there are people who (at least with one part of their brain) can see themselves running and winning four or eight years down the line, and that could have them laying some groundwork now. In reality such groundwork is seldom wasted, much as starting a four-year degree is not a complete waste even if you change tracks after a year, or have to bail from college completely due to unforeseen circumstances. It's likely still good to have gotten that year of college rather than not gone.

As you can tell from the age of my refs, it was quite some while back that I really looked in depth at this stuff, but I believe those are all still good things to consider, esp when you are first starting to consider them.

Anyway to round off, there are a couple of military aphorisms that are worth taking on board in this kind of situation.

- Planning is everything, the plan is nothing
- No plan survives contact with the enemy
posted by philipy at 10:34 AM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

The book Game Change about the 2008 presidential race gets into this a bit, in relation to planning a run for president. That was one of the most surprising things in the book to me, anyway -- how far in advance people have to plan to make a run for the top office. Even when they're planning several years ahead to maybe run for president in 3 years, they're also considering whether they might have a better shot if they wait and run in 7 years.

As far as how to make such plans for yourself, I think it's easiest to set a goal and a timeframe, and then work backward to figure out how you get there. But you have to keep your plan somewhat flexible, because the further you get into the plan, the more you're going to know about what steps you forgot to include or overemphasized in your original plan. Part of working toward any goal is re-evaluating whether you're really happy with the direction you're headed, and creating new goals or interim steps if the old ones no longer suit you.
posted by vytae at 4:36 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am not sure what you mean by "no established model"? Because most people find it effective to talk to the people who have reached the goal, and ask them what they did. Being around those people is itself useful in meeting the people you will need along the way and could show up that it is not a sensible goal for you anyway). You don't describe what sort of goal you have. Some may be achievable by just sitting down and thinking of the steps, but many are most easily reached by talking to people with experience. The example of a political goal seems very much one of that sort. In your town, who makes it to office from where? Much the best way to find out is to talk to people in the political loop. even if your goal seems a dry technical one, like say building a better electronic mousetrap, looking at other inventors' processes makes sense.

If there is no-one accessible who has reached your goal, can you read up about people who have done it elsewhere? The internet is your friend. If there really is no-one else who has become an international seller of left-handed gold-plated grapefruit peelers, decide which is most relevant or most difficult part of your goal and find out about, say, people involved in international selling of luxury goods.
posted by Idcoytco at 10:01 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

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