Small Steps = Smart Planning


planningHere’s an interesting hypothetical: if you asked 100 planners to give their vision of the future, chances are that all 100 planners would give you a vision that is ten to twenty years away. I’d wager there isn’t one that would offer, say, a vision that is one year from today. Isn’t that strange? Whether it is two decades or twelve months, both are technically the future yet our association with “The Future” is always set on a distant horizon.

This is a cognitive bias within our profession and it has been applauded and reinforced for decades. It is an extension of Burnham’s charge for us to “make no small plans”. It is evident in our far-reaching comprehensive plans that are given titles such as “Vision 2050” or “[Evocative Term] 2030”.

The sentiment of far-reaching visions is very romantic and exciting. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But the natural fixation on the long-term is still a bias and it interferes with our ability to make plans work. On a personal note, I’ve recently found a consequence from this sort of thinking that is quite troubling: of all the plans I’ve authored, the featured vision has always been distant (perhaps out of reach?), grandiose, and bold. And by default, the implementation strategies have been just as big.

A bias for large visions leads to a reliance on large solutions.

In other words, the classic dictum “make no small plans” often leads to implementation strategies that “make no small steps”.

This is a recipe for failure and frustration. Consider the patient who seeks advice on how to lose weight and become physically-fit. A responsible, shrewd doctor would not say, “You should buy some new running shoes and complete a marathon tomorrow.” If anything, the doctor would say “Go for a nice walk this afternoon.”

The doctor would shrink the change. This is a crucial lesson for all of us who try to implement plans. The psychology is the same. Whether it’s an individual or an entire community, the best and most important advice is to start with a small step that can be easily achieved.

To go back to my own personal experience, I recently completed a 30-year plan that features a $10,000,000 infrastructure investment for retrofitting a five-lane highway into a multi-way boulevard. Sounds exciting, right? The project has been the central figure of the implementation strategy; it’s a big solution for a big plan. And this solution is wonderful. It is a textbook suburban retrofit. The price tag is high but the benefit, as we know, is higher.

Is the project worth doing? Yes. Is it technically feasible? Indeed. But there are other ways to consider feasibility. To put it another way, is it feasible to expect a city of 36,000 people that has never, in its history, funded a street project of this magnitude to just gleefully give it the green light? Absolutely not. We may have a feasible solution but it’s not an achievable one.

In the same way that a person coming off the couch could be frustrated at their inability to run a marathon, a community can become frustrated (very quickly, I might add) when they see their best-laid plans lead to false starts and failed attempts. It’s all about the expectation.

So after a few failed attempts to secure $10,000,000 for the road project (such money appears to be very elusive, even for such a wonderful public improvement), I went back to the drawing board and established several small, six-figure projects that could be done much sooner. The $10,000,000 project is still on our horizon but we decided to work towards it instead of allowing its destiny to hold up our progress. Coincidentally, after we made this shift away from the big ticket item, a major street intersection identified in the plan was funded; one of our “small projects” is going to become a reality. Our first success story is underway. It feels like a wonderful first step on a long, important journey.

One thing is clear: the big plans and big projects will always be necessary for certain situations. But the small plans built on a near-term focus can be more effective at creating change. I think they can be more fun, too. How exciting would it be to hold a charrette for a single road diet? Or to work with a citizen committee on a modest neighborhood sidewalk project? In these instances, the smaller focus leads to more tangible plans, smaller price tags, and solutions that could be more easily implemented.

Too often, I and others have made big plans that seem to willfully defy the City’s existing limitations. It’s the curse of optimism. We know, deep down, that the City can be better in twenty years but this leads us to design fixes that take twenty years to complete. Instead, let’s regain focus on what would make the City better in six months. Rather than thinking about how we can make a transformation in the long-term, let’s see how we can create real improvements in the near-term.

A bold vision can be terrific but a small step in the right direction is more important.


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