A learning moment about Plan B

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No, I’m not talking about that Plan B. I’m talking about backup plans (like the time I called a motel near my campsite to inquire about vacancies, just in case we needed to vacate our site due to heavy rain.)

As a compulsive planner, I really can’t help myself.  For every truly important Plan A (camping included), I generally have at least a Plan B, if not C through F.  I play to win.  I generally try to come up with many different ways to achieve an end to maximize the odds of success. This approach has worked marvelously well for me throughout my life for the things I truly cared about.  So I’ve felt smug about my great hit rate, until recently when I was challenged on my approach.

Someone who was a big champion for a Plan A noticed that I was making a Plan B, and he got noticeably upset.  He told me that my approach indicates that I was not aggressive enough in my pursuit of Plan A, that I don’t believe in it enough, and that I should channel my energy back to making the primary approach work.

So I sat back and thought about this.   Did I put any less energy in Plan A’s just because I have Plan B’s?  Definitely not.   I still chased  after the holy grail in full steam.   I simply believe in covering all of my bases since Plan A was full of risk.  Apparently this can be seen as a form of betrayal by people who are highly invested in Plan A.

As I am pretty left-brained, I find this sentiment illogical and hard to empathize with.  It appeared to me that this person was  responding emotionally, not rationally, to the situation, since I have the facts on my side.  Yet I accept that this person’s sentiment is no less valid than mine.  People Are Different And That’s OK (that was the first and most important takeaway from all my years in ethnography research.)

This was a learning moment.   I learned that I have to work harder in managing expectations in situations like this.  I am not going to stop making Plan B’s.  I just need to make it quite clear that this doesn’t mean I support Plan A any less.

I had a chat with the person, and all’s well that ended well.   I hope I’ll do a better job at managing perceptions next time.

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2 Responses to “A learning moment about Plan B”


  1. 1 Ben Rubin December 15, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    If you only make a plan A (no plan B allowed! Don’t even think about it!) – you will be MORE likely to succeed on Plan A. Plan B means no backup has been created and it’s just NOT OK to fail on Plan A.

    Add in a Plan B and it’s suddenly acceptable to fail – “at least we have our backup plan”. I think there are some times when the right thing to do is to have NO backup plan. When? 2 criterion must be met:

    1. Plan A is VASTLY SUPERIOR to Plan B.

    2. Complete failure (not achieving Plan A) doesn’t have SERIOUS consequences.

    Example: Single guy walks into a bar – sees 10 women he could try to get a number from. One is a real standout. Says I WILL GET THAT NUMBER OR NONE AT ALL. No plan B. Fits the criteria. Since there is no backup Plan A is more likely to succeed.

    Another trick. Make a Plan B – but DON’T TALK ABOUT IT. Tell your team than Plan A must be achieved – there is no backup plan. If things go awry pull Plan B from your back pocket. People will be relieved. You will be more likely to achieve Plan A. You also run the risk of being seen as irresponsible and headstrong. Tradeoffs.

    • 2 Elaine Chen December 16, 2010 at 7:39 am

      I tend to work with teams who prefer that I have Plan B’s since the goal is to get the job done, rather than to get the job done with a particular plan. It gives them confidence I know what I am doing. I lose credibility without a well thought out disaster recovery plan. But I agree, with some people this should be strictly shared on a need-to-know basis.


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