When my Father hit seventy the family took him to Berlin as a special treat. We booked a fabulous hotel, gave him the guidebook and told him that when we got there he had complete control over what we did. His trip. His choice. We forgot that my Dad has many good characteristics, but the ability to plan is not one of them.
After two days of standing on street corners trying to guess what might exist in the city to see and struggling to get group tables in popular restaurants, patience was running thin. Then one evening as we prepared to retire to bed my mother came running down the corridor jubilantly knocking on our bedroom doors.
“Come quick! Your Dad says he has a plan for tomorrow.”
The call was passed along to spouses. “Come quick! Dad has a plan!”
We all trouped into their corner suite where he sat, king-like on his sofa dressed in the Kempinski’s fluffy white robe.
We perched on the bed and the desk waiting with bated breath.
“We’ll get up early and go for a swim” he announced with a degree of gravitas. We all nodded in agreement. We had done this every day so far, so no surprise yet. “Then, he continued, “we will have breakfast.”
Ok. Same-same, but the good bit was surely coming next.
“And then,” he paused, aware that he had an eagerly awaiting audience. “Then we will all meet in the lounge downstairs, get the guidebook, and decide what to do.”
A chorus of outrage erupted.
Not. A. Plan!
The next day, inevitably, we wandered and stood on the outside of the Reichstag because we hadn’t pre-booked the necessary tickets to get in. Some of us were thoroughly annoyed. Some thought we could have had a better trip but that it wasn’t the end of the world and Dad was happy as Larry wandering and mooching and just being in a different place.
With a holiday this tendency towards a total lack of planning might not matter all that much, but what about when it comes to our studio practices or business as artists? Should we have ten-year life plans? Do we need a yearly social media content marketing plan? Do we need to have an online task manager and a spreadsheet of how many paintings in which size need to be completed by the end of the tax year to fulfil our detailed income forecast? Or should we play and be curious, discover and embrace serendipity? After all, isn’t that the fun of being an artist? Or does deciding to make art seriously and professionally (whether you interpret that as about high standards or as about earning money) mean we must put away childish practices and get our checklists out?
The four types of planning process
An interesting study was made of small business owners and entrepreneurs in Namibia. The researchers were interested not in the content of plans but in the strategy process used by these individuals trying to make a living from a small business and whether their level of planning made any difference. First, they identified four types of planning:
1. Complete planning means that you plan with high goal orientation, a lot of long-term planning, high knowledge and high proactiveness. If you were deciding to buy a studio building, for example, you would think upfront about finances, the type of property you need, the cost of renovation, business permits, property taxes, utility bills and the types of equipment you would need space for. This is a very proactive way of working. Problems can be anticipated and solved before they become an emergency. However, it can also be costly in time and money and can cause rigid thinking and a determination to stick to the plan even if a better opportunity arises.
2. Critical point planning is where you start with the most difficult part and figure the rest out after that. You may focus on persuading your parents to give you a loan against your inheritance or a bank willing to give you a mortgage to purchase a gallery space. Only when you have the funding in place would you bother to research the available properties. This orientation to one point of planning at a time allows some situational responses.
3. Opportunistic planning is about constantly scanning the environment for opportunities. Maybe you are thinking about an ex-industrial building for a big studio in a city. But then a cute cottage comes up right next to your favourite village cafe. An opportunist planner would happily deviate from the plan to take advantage of this new development. Doing so could be a good decision but it could also mean the easy distraction and attraction to ‘new shiny things’ causes a derailing of goals and costly mistakes.
4. A reactive strategy is where there is no plan in the first place. There is no systematic searching for opportunities, no research, no sifting of what is ‘out there’. An artist with a reactive strategy stumbles along finding her way by accident or because other people pass on information. An artist like this might have been told by a friend that a semi-derelict barn would make a good studio and just goes for it without any real thought. The freedom of a reactive strategy opens you up to be agile and ready to seize an opportunity. On the other hand, without investigating the cost of renovation, the possible presence of vermin and absence of plumbing, the smell of manure from the working farm next door and the cost of heating a drafty barn, the studio may become a very bad idea.
What happened in Namibia
The researcher wanted to test what level of planning most often leads to a successful small business. They measured success on the size of the business, its growth, and the subjective view of the owner as to whether they had achieved their definition of success. A second part of the study looked at whether entrepreneurial characteristics such as autonomy, risk-taking, and innovation affected the success of the businesses.
It is perhpas not suprising that the reactive form of planning was shown to be connecte dto the least successful business. Traders with entrepreneurial chacracteristics were much more successful in difficult trading conditions than those without. Perhas you feel that it is not worth doing a study to find that out, so obvious it may seem. However, ( and here I pause like my Dad in his robe for you to enjoy the anticipation), there was a high correlation between those who adopted the reactive planning form and those with entrepreneurial characteristics. People who planned completely did well in expected conditions but people who had a reactive style were the ones who also had the entrepreneurial skills to alter course when conditions required it.
Why this makes a difference to your practice
This suggests that for success in all kinds of conditions we need to develop both good planning skills and the ability to flex and react by taking risky diversions and innovating even if the plan does not call for it.
Fortunately, both planning skills and entrepreneurial characteristics can be learned and developed. It need not be that we have one or the other in our skill set. Yes, have a social media strategy but if something topical crops up that occurs to you, fit it in and shift that schedule around. Yes, have a set of goals for your year but if a cancellation comes up on a painting course you’ve always wanted to do find a way to take it, but without totally abandoning your year plan.
Consciously choosing a different planning style to match the importance and difficulty of the project may also make sense. In the example of buying a commercial property complete planning makes much more sense than it would for a decision to explore a new body of work based on a theme of ‘spaciousness’ or ‘memory. Whilst creativity works well with parameters and you may need to do some planning around the number of pieces that will fit in your show or the type of research trips you need to budget for, creative work like that needs flexibility and the ability to chase down rabbit holes after the unexpected.
In Germany in the end, we found a compromise. On the final day we all joined Dad for an unplanned meander in the morning but in the afternoon, we agreed to separate, and everyone got to plan their own ‘don’t want to miss’ activity before we returned for dinner together.
Had I planned the full trip before I left home, I would probably have been in a war history museum or on the Art Museum island. However, because Dad’s aimless roaming had taken me past a tourist information stand, I had grabbed a leaflet about a graffiti tour that ended up in a spray painting session in an abandoned margarine factory. As soon as we agreed that we would be getting ‘freedom afternoon’ I planned and made sure I got a slot on the tour. That afternoon turned out to be one of the foundational experiences that results in the graffiti-influenced art I make today.
It seems the sweet spot between rigid planning and allowing in some movement and serendipity is the way to go both for our art practice and our businesses.