Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Between Planning and Chance

The world was a very different place in April 2015 when I wrote the following post about the necessity of planning and then the reality—and opportunity—of chance intervening. Museums, libraries, schools, millions of lives, and the world were different too. But the essence of navigating between planning and chance has not changed. If anything, the need to be thinking about it is even more critical than ever.


Planning prepares us for what might come. We look back at what has happened; we look out at what is changing around us; and we look forward at our enduring purpose and how we might be more helpful in the future.


So, when a set of nearly-unimaginable events converge—like a pandemic, economic hardship, and social unrest—we can draw on and update our understandings and prepare to move forward in new, responsive ways. It would be utterly foolish to suggest this is easy. But returning to recent planning or using the time a museum is closed now for planning makes movement possible and puts a museum on a path to deliberate action that could not have been recognized before.

You plan and you plan and then you just have to acknowledge that some things will be left to chance.

This plannerism is one I keep in mind especially when deeply involved in a planning project that is winding down and moving towards implementation. What comes after planning? Opening a museum, launching a strategic plan, activating a learning framework, or unveiling an exhibition is much like the moment of taking off the training wheels and riding. What happens next?

This moment of transition from planning to action characterizes many aspects of museum work as well as teaching, planning a trip, finding a job, or, for that matter, life. For conferences, board retreats, organizational budgets, visitor panels, exhibition planning, or a strategic partnership, we can get the right people together, gather the needed information, meet with stakeholders, check-off the steps, develop a critical path, and have the right people in place. 

I suspect that, even when we have planned well, what we really want is an extraordinary version of our plan to play out, delivered by remarkable opportunities and chance.

We may be poised for opportunities, but we never know until the very moment whether we will recognize them or be able to act on them. Chance is not necessarily the unexpected popular guest arriving with impeccable timing. Sometimes chance shows up as back-to back blizzards, illness, or road construction. While we don't know just what chance will deliver or when, chance will play a role. 

Even with a firm a belief in the value of planning and the preparation it provides, how can we leave room for chance? Will we be ready when the ideal site is available long before we planned to start a site search? Can we take advantage of a special granting opportunity when we don’t have all the right people in place? We cannot predict, schedule or invoke opportunity or a lucky break. But we can find ways to make space for chance in planning and in living the plan.

Intentionality and Thinking in Time
From a strategic agenda to a conference agenda, from facility design to exhibition design, planning is being deliberate about accomplishing something significant for a museum, its visitors, and community. We identify the steps along the way and the means for accomplishing them–time, space, prepared staff, funds, and partners. As well as knowing what we want to achieve and encourage, we must also know what we are not after; we need to be alert to signals and precursors of opportunity and wrong turns that might lie on our path.

The larger a planning intention is, the more comprehensive planning will be. Yet, planning is not having everything figured out and tied with a bow. Rather than a script for the future, planning, at its best, develops a shared clarity about what is important and what we hope will happen. Because the future is necessarily uncertain, planning is as much a way of thinking and preparing for possible opportunities as having a detailed plan. Both strategic thinking and design thinking activate a static plan document or rendered exhibition design by the everyday thinking that continues long after the plan is officially complete.

When staff continues to focus on a plan's or project's purpose and intent, they are able to generate relevant insights that allow the museum to be nimble in a dynamic context. Thinking in time and making an integrated set of choices help optimize opportunities and navigate challenges whether the project is opening a satellite facility, launching a professional development center, creating a nature area, adding a maker space, or incorporating dialogue into interactions with visitors. This is living the plan.

Near and Far Horizons
Fast forward. A plan has been launched. A strategy team is meeting for the first time. The exhibit has opened and visitors are streaming through the gallery doors. The creativity framework is being shared across museum departments.

On the heels of completing a plan a critical but subtle shift occurs: merging day-to-day choices with overarching purpose. Living the letter of a plan is, on the one hand, artificial and rigid. Plans, frameworks, and exhibit designs are, necessarily, idealized versions of what we think should happen. In contrast, implementation is immersion in immediate, practical circumstances constantly in flux. Focusing completely on the everyday at the exclusion of the big picture can lead down rabbit holes and obscure opportunities and new possibilities.

Living in both the plan’s far and near time frames is vital. Active dialogue between them and alertness to approaching opportunities is facilitated by frequent discussions that easily shift between; they link the big picture with current choices. As decision points approach, we revisit past decisions in light of current information. We adjust our view to look at the big picture with a broader or narrower perspective. Reassessing the situation sometimes requires letting go and starting a new path. Challenging assumptions, noticing information that doesn’t fit, and being wary of confirmation bias help bring developing conditions into focus.

J. P. Morgan noted, in planning as in life, we go as far as we can see. When we get there, we can see farther. What was invisible or out of view earlier is now visible and apparent.

Awake and Alert to the Moment
A plan isn’t going to send up flares to announce an approaching opportunity. Being alert and awake to the moment is the only remedy; it is, however, not as simple as it seems. An unlikely combination of concentration and responsiveness, it requires keeping a steady focus on what is to be accomplished, an openness to alternatives, and readiness for an adaptive response.

Difficult to put into in words, it is equally challenging to pull off in the moment. The image of a dowser holding a divining rod lightly in order to sense the tug of water far below suggests a readiness for the unexpected.

In the municipal infant-toddler centers and preschools in Reggio Emilia (IT), one expression of planning is a well-developed structure and thoughtful organization that support teachers in guiding children’s explorations. A clear, but broad, agenda and preparation inform teachers’ choices as children pursue interests and follow bigger ideas. Extensive explorations, often spreading over weeks and even months, emerge from a focus on a well-planned activity, reflection on what’s occurring, and a responsiveness to children’s interests and questions.

While in a classroom, not a museum and in a pedagogical rather than a strategic frame, teachers concerned with larger goals are also attuned to what is happening as children express fascination and ask questions. Teachers are alert to what is happening, what might happen, and are ready to capitalize on an unanticipated twist or happy accident when chance comes to the classroom.

Reflection and Action
Along with intentionality and thinking in time, embracing near and far time horizons, and being alert and awake in the moment, reflection and action inhabit the time and space between planning and chance.

Practiced individually or as a group, reflection introduces important qualities not readily available and decidedly different from what task-driven action and decision-making pressures yield. In stepping away from the everyday, even if briefly, reflection creates a space for paying critical attention, making sense of what has occurred, and consolidating learning. Through reflection we may backtrack through choices, ask new questions, re-sort information, and reassess progress. We may integrate intention with actual experience, synthesize opposing ideas, and connect knowledge from prior experience to current options and choices. A new continuity emerges from hundreds of separate steps and actions.  

Reflection generates new ways of seeing. By reprocessing information, we may understand differently what has or hasn’t happened–or what could have happened. We may see something that wasn’t apparent before or see it in a new light. Bringing a new viewpoint to a situation can re-frame a problem, discover an ally, find a fertile a crack between two obstacles, or reveal ways to restructure work and move forward.

Insights from reflection often offer a glimpse of the possible, an imagination of what might happen. It might put us on a path to deliberate action that we couldn’t have appreciated before; open a door we didn’t know was there. We may recognize an opening for action.

Even if the space between planning and chance is different from what we sometimes wish it were, it is, nevertheless, roomy, rich, and often unexplored territory. Sometimes it delivers the results of hard work rather than a free sample. Sometimes it produces a generous shift rather than an ordered gift. But under a few right conditions, the space between planning and chance delivers.

Chance favors the prepared mind.
Attributed to Louis Pasteur

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