Big plans usually come to grief - lessons from a German energy plan

Big, comprehensive plans usually come to grief. It is impossible to identify all the variables and how they interact even if things stay the same - and they never do. Big plans make hard, still and brittle systems. Being robust & adaptive is better in a world that cannot be predicted. Having a good process in mind is better than a great plan.

In Germany's case, they ended up doing precisely what the plan was supposed to avoid. Carbon emissions are now rising in Germany, even as those in the "plan-less" U.S. are falling.

I have been following this planning debate my whole adult life. I recall that I used to be upset that we had no big plans. When I was in college, professors told me it was a weakness of ours. I recall reading how communists would dominate us because they had a coherent plan. Didn't work out for them. I remember the Japanese supposedly had plans that thought a century ahead. (We should not have thought that was impressive. Imagine a plan from 1914. Assumptions would not have played out.) Well that one didn't work out so well either.

A big, detailed long range plan is a work of fiction. It may be beautiful. Fiction is often clearer and more rational than fact. It makes people feel better but it is pure BS if you get more than a few years out. You cannot predict the big discontinuous change because it is discontinuous. It is the meaning of the concept. All planning depends on the future resembling the past. At times when it doesn't ... we use the simple term overtaken by events, but it is worse.

A better plan is distributed decision making and emergent strategy. You can set goal, but know that you need to change them when conditions change and assumptions prove wrong.

From a strictly personal greed point of view, however, I hope our European friends hold onto their master plan a few more years. We are experiencing a boom in wood pellets, shipped from the Port of Chesapeake to Europe. It has really helped the prices for pulp and even smaller round wood. They use our renewable forest litter to generate electricity. We can produce and ship them cheaper than our European friends can, even with their local advantage. So thanks guys. The plan is working for some people, just not maybe the ones you planned for.

Posted by Christine & John at February 17, 2014 8:07 PM
Comment #376488

Too bad command and control laws get a lot more public support than carbon taxes do.

Posted by: Warren Porter at February 15, 2014 8:18 PM
Comment #376491

We humans have a bias toward this sort of thing. A good system is emergent. The leaders can plan and must, but their goal is facilitation and removing obstacles rather than setting precise policy and giving orders. But does such a leader get credit? No.

Lord Keynes said that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally. It is much better for the leader to have a big plan. When it doesn’t work, he can blame others or back luck, while taking credit for the small and expensive part the happened to work.

In all my study of history, I have never seen a long range plan that has worked in any detail. The smart plans have a general goal and a process and from their they adapt.

German seem particularly prone to the pathology of master plans. This particular one is less harmful than some others.

Posted by: CJ at February 15, 2014 8:31 PM
Comment #376499

My motto in my insurance business is; “Today’s decisions are tomorrow’s reality”.

Chaos is the absence of planning. However, as C/J points out, our planning must include flexibility. We plan for floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and such, but when they happen we often find our plans were inadequate. Some will say we didn’t spend enough money and some will say the plan was good but the execution was poorly performed.

As the axiom predicts; “Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.”

D-day, June 6, 1944 was perhaps the greatest military plan in all of human history. The greatest strategists in the Allied forces planned for every contingency and yet were at the mercy of many factors beyond their control. Eisenhower had even prepared a message in case of failure in which he took full responsibility for the failure.

Any good plan builds in the flexibility to change and adjust.

Posted by: Royal Flush at February 16, 2014 11:49 AM
Comment #376510


I should make it clear. I am thinking of comprehensive country level plans that don’t work. I have plans for my own life, although not very detailed. As a forest owner, I have rough plans for the next 30 years, after which I plan to be dead. And we need to plan particular projects. But we need to be careful with the detail.

I have been thinking about this and I think what we need is a process, not a plan. You mentioned D-Day. What made it work was the process. There were competent people who were prepared to take decisions. Recall the D-Day landings, when Theodore Roosevelt, Jr was dropped more than a mile from his landing zone. His famous words were, “We’ll start the war from right here!”.

I recently heard an interesting lecture about Gettysburg. The battle was largely won on the on-the-spot decisions by subordinate commanders on the Union side. There was no master plan to attack or defend there, but a process was in place.

Our German friends could benefit - if they felt it useful - to make a general goal to reduce carbon, w/o specifying the means or details of technologies. In that way they could adapt. As it is now, their plan is giving them exactly what they hoped to avoid AND making them pay a lot more to get it.

Posted by: CJ at February 16, 2014 1:45 PM
Comment #376516

D-Day is actually a very good example where flexibility trumped detailed planning. I’m not sure if you are aware, but D-Day was originally scheduled to occur on June 5, but was rescheduled at the behest of allied meteorological forecasts. The allies’ advantage came not from their superior forecasting techniques (the Germans were quite competent as well), but rather from the decentralization in the forecaster’s hierarchy. Read more here.

Posted by: Warren Porter at February 16, 2014 4:20 PM
Comment #376542

Warren thanks for the link regarding D-Day. Very interesting.

Posted by: Royal Flush at February 17, 2014 3:26 PM
Comment #376590

RF, I’m glad you enjoyed it. That particular anecdote is very standard in introduction meteorology courses in order to demonstrate the importance of ensembles in forecasting. We will never craft a perfect model of the atmosphere, but we can create many imperfect ones: some too hot, some too cold, others too dry and others still too wet. Somewhere in the means of all these forecast lies the correct prediction.

Posted by: Warren Porter at February 18, 2014 9:41 PM
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