In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensableDwight D. Eisenhower

I had an employer a while back who printed that quote out as a poster and hung it over our department (Maintenance Planning, appropriately) as a general rule for how we should approach things. He was right. The premise was that whatever plan you think will occur simply won’t – especially during emergencies, last-minute developments, etc. (otherwise known as Murphy’s Law.) However, if you have a framework to guide you, it becomes a lot easier to adjust and have a new plan to get you moving forward again.

Donald Rumsfeld, somewhat of a lightning rod for the US government, once said during a briefing about the US-led invasion of Iraq:

…there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

He was trying to point out that there are some things you don’t know that you don’t know. It’s a valid point, even if the language makes your head hurt.

The context of that statement, of course, caused all sorts of controversy and commentary – but the underlying logic of the unknown unknowns is that there are some gaps in your knowledge where you simply cannot know that a gap exists yet.

Today, I was on my way to an event across town here in Atlanta – something called pitch practice. It allows you to refine your message delivery so that the message you send (speaking to people) is the message they receive (when hearing your words). I expected this to be a great session since we were cancelled last week due to the Good Friday religious holiday. 
However, as I was halfway there, driving through an incredible springtime downpour, my phone dinged with a tweet. When I finally got to a red light and looked at it, I discovered that this week was also cancelled because our meeting guru was on vacation. Oof.

No pitch practice again this week. We’re on Spring Break! Enjoy #StartupChowdown @ATLTechVillage and see you next Friday.
— Pitch Practice (@pitch_practice) April 10, 2015

So my unknown unknown (this event was never going to happen today) just got upgraded to a known known.

I’m committed at this point – I made room in my schedule for this today, I’m already halfway across town, and I’m sitting in traffic with visibility around a quarter mile in a clear patch. What do I do?

Complain about the late notification? Nope.

Turn around and go home? Not a chance.

Time to use that framework and make a different plan to capture this new opportunity (free time!) that I now have.

Searching for unplanned opportunities that you can use is a great strategy, so you should be constantly looking for them. Some of the greatest opportunities come from unplanned events – some good questions to ask yourself:

  • Does this issue let me start over somehow and do it better the next time?
  • What can I do now that was literally impossible to do just a minute ago?
  • Was this plan even workable? If not, how can I take advantage of what’s just happened?
In my case, I went to a place I knew I could grab a quiet table and get some work done on SynapseMX because everyone was expecting me to be tied up for the next few hours. Having a block of time where nobody is looking for you is such a rare commodity these days that I didn’t want to waste it – almost like taking a flight but without the obligatory TSA groping.
Make a plan but expect it to go sideways on you. Then take a look around and figure out how you can make it work to your advantage.

I’m going to get so much done.

And Kevin? We’ve got to work on the timing of those notifications, my friend. 🙂