Plans are useless but planning is indispensable. - Dwight D. Eisenhower
I recently ran across an interesting article in the Opinion section of the Wall Street Journal, ostensibly on the passing of statesman Robert McNamara, entitled "From McNamara to Obama." McNamara was defense secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, a primary architect of US strategy for the Vietnam war, and later served as president of the World Bank. A former Harvard professor and corporate Whiz Kid, McNamara came to be associated with a technocratic style of problem solving that symbolized the idea that [the Kennedy administration] could manage and control events in an intelligent, rational way. Taking on a guerrilla war was like buying a sick foreign company; you bought your systems in. In national defense as well as subsequent roles at the World Bank, McNamara used meticulous plans driven by quantitative analysis to help fashion a better life for mankind. He was the quintessential Planner. Alas, McNamara's mechanistic planning approach was less than fully successful with either national defense or world poverty -- points he acknowledged later in life.
It seems that Planners are now non grata in the international war on poverty, having been supplanted by what developmental economist William Easterly calls Searchers in both his book, The White Man's Burden, Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, and scholarly article, Planners vs Searchers in Foreign Aid. Easterly's arguments against Planners and for Searchers are, I believe, just as pertinent for business as they are for third world economics, even if he views planning simplistically in a negative light.
In a business context, the Planner thinks she already knows the answers, which are derived from planned solutions to technical engineering problems. A Searcher, on the other hand, acknowledges upfront that she hasn't all the answers, but is intent on finding them through trial and error. Planners determine what to supply; Searchers seek what's in demand. Planners have grand ideals; Searchers are modest in intent, looking for little victories. Planners are top-down experts; Searchers are bottom-up experimenters. For Planners, the plan with fixed objectives is too often the end game; Searchers, in contrast, are not unduly attached to their ideas, but instead are flexible and nimble, willing to vary objectives with learning. Planners raise expectations; Searchers crave feedback and accountability.
Lest we banish Planners forever, be mindful that the Easterly depiction is a weak straw man whose benefits are probably now under-appreciated. Nevertheless, the Planner/Searcher dichotomy is progressing to the business world in a big way. The Practice of Leadership blog promotes Searchers in a flattering article: Planners vs searchers...the big programme vs small wins. And no less a management authority than writer/consultant Tom Peters has opined strongly on the topic: The Right Plan is to Have No Plan. Peters sees his career portfolio of work as archtypically Searcher: My "ideology"my only ideologyis unabashedly rapid fire trial and error. (Bob Waterman and I labeled this "a bias for action," our first of Eight Basics that were the centerpiece of In Search of Excellence. Indeed, the evidenced-based management movement, driven by a learning obsession with data, experiments, analytics and feedback, is the embodiment of searching in the business world.
I think the Planner/Searcher dichotomy is quite pertinent for business intelligence as well, and believe there's room for both Planners and Searchers in modern BI. Never much a theorist or top-down strategic thinker, I'm predisposed to search, driven by exploration, experimentation and predictive analytics as points of departure for bottom-up business theories. What follows is a starting point of my own biases for contrasting the Planner and Searcher approaches to BI. I'm sure the list will continue to evolve over time, and welcome input from readers.