On Human Thought and Planning

January 3, 2010

Over the holidays I’ve been reading “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman. It’s a wonderful read, but dense – it’s definitely “armchair and a pipe” material – you can’t rush it.  I came across this interesting quote regarding the nature of human thought:

But human thought – and its close relatives, problem solving and planning – seem more rooted in past experience than in logical deduction. Mental life is not neat and orderly. It does not proceed smoothly and gracefully in neat, logical form. Instead, it hops, skips, and jumps its way from idea to idea, tying together things that have no business being put together; forming new creative leaps, new insights and concepts. Human thought is not like logic; it is fundamentally different in kind and spirit. The difference is neither worse nor better. But it is the difference that leads to creative discovery and to great robustness of behavior. [p.115]

In this paragraph Norman is talking about the fickle nature of human thought. When he refers to planning as a close relative of human thought, I couldn’t help but think of project planning. As Norman suggests, human thought is not the orderly process we might like it to be. If that is the case, then project planning is not the neat and tidy system that some people would like to sell you. If thought and planning are truly akin to one another, as Norman suggests they are, then I would suggest that any system that attempts to turn planning into some sort of logical, deterministic process is destined to fail. The intriguing idea here is that planning needs to accommodate creativity, intuitive leaps, non-linear processes.

I think there are a lot of people who grasp this notion, and I think there are many others who have a great deal of difficulty with it. Those who don’t accept this notion tend to try and wrap more and more layers of process around the problem. Those who accept the need for creativity and intuition in planning – people who are more comfortable with uncertainty – are more likely to treat the planning process as a dance: You know what the steps are supposed to be, but you are prepared to change at any moment.