Most of us would be familiar with the management aphorism: “If you fail to plan you are planning to fail”, and there is a lot of truth to it. But there is a darker side to this saying as well, one which many of my clients struggle with. Clients like Bob.

Bob is a project manager, smart, competent and successful. He works in a large water company, but there are many like him in all sorts of companies around the world. Bob has a track record of managing a range of difficult projects from planning through to delivery. Most recently he took on the exciting task of working with a diversity of stakeholders to improve water quality and amenity across a large urban water catchment. Bob knows his organisation can’t deliver outcomes on its own, and he is committed to collaborating with others to create lasting solutions together.

But a few months in, progress wasn’t as fast or as easy as he had expected. In fact, he was very worried that the collaboration would fall apart. People seemed unsure, unhappy, frustrated at the complexity and messiness of the task. Bob felt it too. But, being an experienced project manager, Bob gritted his teeth and applied himself to the problem of how to ensure this collaborative group delivered outcomes.

Going back to first principles, Bob decided he needed a plan of action, setting out the steps he and his collaborators would to take in order to get outcomes in a timely fashion. So he sat down with some smart colleagues to create the document.

But there was a problem. He actually didn’t know what the next steps should be. He wasn’t sure what the problem was – is it lack of commitment or lack of clarity or lack of resources…? He wasn’t sure who should be a part of the problem-solving process or who wanted to be a part of it.

What did Bob do? Being a good project manager, he decided to gather more data so that he could answer some of these questions in order to write the plan. But hang on, what data did he need? Where should he get it? What will that data mean..? He needs a plan for this…

Poor Bob was stuck in the space of not knowing; paralysed by the need to get the answers in order to proceed. His powerful urge to line up the ducks on this project was clashing with its unknowability.

The lesson is that planning can only take you so far when collaborating in complex situations. Rather than plan in order to act, Bob found more success when he began to act in order to learn. In practice, that meant Bob and his collaborators confronting and acknowledging the inevitable uncertainty of the situations they faced, but not getting paralysed by it. Instead, they tried things, developing small experiments to run. And together they learned from those activities. Some things didn’t work so well. Other things were more effective. All have been useful to help shed further light on how to tackle this catchment management problem. Only by taking action has the group learned what it takes to make a difference to their waterway.

Taking action when we don’t have all the answers can be scary, but Bob has now been working this way for many months as part of our Collaboration Builder program, and together he and his collaborators have created actions that no plan could have covered. They have learned not to plan in order to act, but to act in order to learn.