Problem defines tools, not vice versa

Planning in conditions of rapid and often unpredictable changes

There are periods of time, such as the one we are living in, when changes are present in many areas – economy, technology, education, etc. Changes are influential, rapid and quite often very difficult, if not impossible, to foresee. In such circumstances, questions occur about possibilities and limitations of planning of development processes – is it needed, possible, how to do it. Exploring these subjects, one may come across different opinions – that it is not needed at all, that it is needed but impossible, that it is needed and possible but that it requires new tools and methods. Especially, there are many discussions on methods, arguing which is better, even opinions that certain method is almost perfect and universally applicable.

So, in practice, what helps and what doesn’t?

Planning is needed, there are hardly any dilemmas about that. Even activities we undertake in everyday life, the smallest ones in terms of time and resources, require a plan, where a plan may be just an idea of what we want and how to achieve this. Going from point A to point B already includes several things important for planning:

  • we need to move from point A, so there is a reason for change,
  • we should go to point B, so it is clear where we should go,
  • we can define what resources we need, having information about the path between these two points (distance, obstacles, etc.).

Clearly, in such situation, there are many things known and planning is not that difficult. Yet, we do need an idea about the process of change, but it is possible, and we know how to do it.

However, situations in development processes are rarely so simple. Much more often it is not easy to recognize the moment when the change is necessary, it is not easy to justify need for change to stakeholders, it is extremely difficult to define what is to be achieved and consequently how can we do that. Despite all that, we still need planning. Seriously, what is the alternative? Just to go with the flow? It does not seem like a desirable option. So, we do need a plan, which brings us to questions how to plan.

So, let’s say we got positive answer to the first question and established that the planning is needed. That brings us to questions of is it possible and how to do it. And this is when methods come into focus. In area where I work, among most often applied methods in planning, there is methodology for strategic planning of development on local level (MIPRO, UNDP BiH, 2011) and among methods for project management it is Project Cycle Management (PCM), defined as “a set of project design and management tools (based on the Logical Framework Approach)” (European Commission, Project Cycle Management Guidelines, 2004, page 1). Also, “Logical Framework Approach (LFA) is a methodology for planning, managing and evaluating programmes and projects, involving stakeholder analysis, problem analysis, analysis of objectives, analysis of strategies, preparation of the Logframe matrix and Activity and Resource Schedules” (European Commission, Project Cycle Management Guidelines, 2004, page 142). Logframe is obviously important and it should be mentioned that it is “the matrix in which a project’s Intervention Logic, Assumptions, Objectively Verifiable Indicators and Sources of Verification are presented” (European Commission, Project Cycle Management Guidelines, 2004, page 142). Also, these methods for identification and design of development interventions are based on logic of linear processes, with clearly defined cause and effect relations. Such methods can be applied for detailed design of an intervention if we really know cause and effect relations. In such cases, methods work fine, it is possible to make time frame, allocate resources, manage and monitor processes in implementation, and to evaluate the intervention. Such methods also work well in regulated environments, such as projects funded by state, EU or donors, because it is possible to prepare detailed project plan (a.k.a. application for funding) which makes it possible to perform ex ante evaluation and make well based decisions. This is an important aspect and is certainly not to be neglected.

Also, methods like PCM work fine in a number of cases. However, there are also numerous cases where we are struggling with applying such methods. More importantly, even if we find the way to prepare and implement an intervention applying such methods, results may not be what we expected. This just discovers that cause and effect relations have not worked as we have expected. And this happens for so many reasons – there are many factors that are changing while influencing the intervention and each other, we do not have information in the area, etc. Should we give up? No, we should try to find the way. After all, word method comes from Greek word for path, a way, so it is a path from point A to point B. And there are many ways to go from point A to point B, which denies claims that certain method is the only one possible and makes us think more about which method to apply, i.e. which path to take. However, before selecting the method, we should determine are we in the situation where cause and effect is known or not.

Source: Snowden and Boone, 2007

Cynefin framework (graphic above) offers an interesting and useful idea. If the situation we are dealing with is on the right side, PCM will work. If not, we have to establish cause and effect relations first, i.e. we have to discover them. An important characteristic of the cases on the left side is that we do not have information about the events. So, we must explore. It is not easy, having in mind we are talking about social processes. But it is not impossible, either. Several safe to fail probes (Cognitive Edge, Safe-to-Fail Probes. par. 1) will shed light on cause and effect relations, and then we can apply methods like PCM. Even these experiments should be clearly defined, so that we can observe processes and detect key points, interactions and influences. If we want to further improve processes within the project, we may consider applying concepts such as Theory of Constraints, as described in Goldratt’s Critical Chain (Goldratt, 1997).

Also, we can plan in different situations. We should not be too attached to any single method or concept, but rather try to understand what we are dealing with and then define an approach to design and realization of solution. I stopped using services of mechanics that were approaching my car carrying a hammer without even looking at the car. Different problems require different methods and tools. Problem defines tools, not vice versa.

Also, there is a number of critics of every concept or method. A number of them is based on cases where an approach was not properly applied (e.g. logframe was prepared without prior analyses) or on wrong expectations (e.g. where Cynefin was applied as a project management tool). On the other hand, these two concepts can work fine – Cynefin to help us determine if and when we can apply PCM, and PCM to do the rest. This is more shift in thinking than in methods. This is, of course, only one way of understanding and using all above mentioned concepts.

Another, but rather important, aspect is how to get support (and funding) for interventions where you cannot promise precisely defined results (in fact, you could, but there is another word for it). Like in other situations, there are different ways (should I say methods). One is to find source supporting this type of interventions, ones focused on research and development of concepts. Another would be to design interventions where some components may have twofold purpose – to achieve a precisely defined result and to make new findings. E.g. when you organize a training for companies, you could clearly expect that their knowledge about the topic will be better. But you could also continue to observe if they are trying to apply some of concepts presented in the training and how does it go. It requires additional effort, but you will get information that can be used for design of new interventions.

It seems that planning nowadays is similar to Hesse’s Glasperlenspeil, but with practical goals, requiring understanding of many areas, capacity to communicate with various stakeholders and readiness to play with new ideas. And also, to accept reasonable level of risk. Difficult? It certainly is. But it is needed, and, now and then, one may even enjoy it.  


Snowden, David J. and Boone, Mary E. (2007). A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making. Harvard Business Review. .

Cognitive Edge. Safe-to-Fail Probes. 11 February 2019.

European Commission. (2004). Project Cycle Management Guidelines.

Goldratt, Eliyahu M. (1997). Critical Chain. The North River Press.

United Nations Development Programme BiH. Methodology for Integrated Local Development Planning in Bosnia and Herzegovina (miPRO).

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