thinking about planning: the gps approach

GPSAt Christmas time our family gifted itself our first GPS navigation unit.  Mitch and I were about to set out on the road trip from Tasmania to Brisbane, and figured that while we’d find our way ok, some navigational assistance particularly in towns and cities might be helpful.

And it was.

We quickly got into a daily routine, with Mitch taking over GPS programming duties based on our hoped for destination and off we set – mostly following the GPS instructions – sometimes taking a side route that seemed interesting – and constantly checking in on the distance we had travelled, the distance still to go and our estimate time of arrival (or “time to beat” as we preferred to think of it).

The GPS enhanced our trip no end, and I was glad then (and many days since as we’ve reacquainted ourselves with Brisbane) that we’d fitted it to the car. I’ve no doubt we would have found our way to Brisbane anyway, but we might have taken a few wrong turns, and could easily have spent days wandering around in the mess that is the Melbourne and Sydney road systems.

Today I got to thinking about planning, and specifically about strategic planning within the organisations and groups in which I work.  And I got to wondering about the ways in which using a GPS unit is a bit like strategic planning.

Here’s where I got to:

  • the GPS tells us where we are currently
  • the GPS knows where we want to go (importantly we tell it where we want to go, not the other way around)
  • the GPS tells us how to get there – factoring in our current location, and desired destination, and then a whole lot of other information
    • external data – like the past experiences of others (historic travel times)
    • current road/traffic conditions (if we’ve sprung for a fancy unit!) that might impact on our trip and enable us to make the right choices for today
    • outlines some risks, and invites us to make some choices based on our priorities and resources (toll roads? dirt roads? ferries?)
  • if we get off track – either by our own choice or through circumstances beyond our control – the GPS helps us navigate back on track – sometimes by a simple reversal to the point where we went wrong, other times by enabling a recalculation and switch to a different route
  • the GPS enables us to constantly monitor timing, ETA (target time!), distance travelled, distance to go and see where we’ve already travelled
  • the GPS shows a level of detail required for the specific situation (like lane guidance at busy interchanges requiring careful navigation)
  • importantly, the GPS is not infallible
    • it’s only as good as it’s most recent map upload (wrong data, wrong answer!)
    • it’s only as good as the accuracy with which we define our destination
    • it needs a clear view without too much getting in the way
    • it’s prone to occasional glitching due to human error or outside interference (hello sunspots!)
  • sometimes we spend so much time playing with the GPS, we forget it is the tool, not the purpose
  • we need to remember the GPS is not the real world, it’s a description of the real world – so we have to keep one eye (ear) on the GPS, and one on the real world unfolding around us (traffic, roadwork, weather)

Like the GPS, a good plan can be gold.

Like the GPS a good plan depends on how carefully we shape it, use it, input the data, and how regularly we compare the plan’s description of the world with reality as it unfolds around us.

And like a GPS, often we’ll eventually reach the destination without a plan – but it might take a little longer, involve some detours we could do without, and for sure mean some time spent being frustrated by ring roads and freeway interchanges that send us in the wrong direction.

A good plan can be gold….if we remember it’s the tool, not the purpose.

What do you think? Where does the metaphor fall down? Where does it work for you? Or failing that….what’s your favourite GPS story? 😉

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