The Orthodoxy of the Plan

The Orthodoxy of the Plan permeates product development:  Mid-project change is costly, and you have to freeze plans to keep the project on track.  But in dynamic environments, The Orthodoxy will increase costs.

An orthodoxy is a belief system so strongly entrenched that people who question it are considered heretics.  Think of Galileo saying the Earth moves around the Sun. Orthodoxies resist correction.  Disconfirming evidence can strengthen the belief rather than weakening it, as researchers studying American politics have found.

The Orthodoxy works when you’re developing products in a stable, slow-moving market, but these days, whose markets are stable?  In fast-changing environments, The Orthodoxy actually increases project disruptions.

Here’s an example.  You’re considering two design options, A and B (gear vs. belt drive, monochrome vs. color display etc.)  Both options have their merits, but in order to freeze the plan, you make the best decision based on available information, let’s say option A.

So far, so good.  But what if a competitor’s product launch resets customers’ expectations before your product launch?  You’re forced to redesign with option B, repeat testing, and probably correct other things that depended on option A.  Your schedule slips and expenses overrun your budget.

I’ve talked with many developers who say that the cost of a change like this is the cost of redesigning for option B, but that’s not the case – Option B was necessary.  The real cost of change is the time and expense you wasted developing option A. 

Heretical as it may seem, freezing the A/B decision increased the cost of change.  You pursued option A, but freezing plans didn’t eliminate the A/B uncertainty, only swept it under the rug.  You stopped gathering more market intelligence and sunk time and effort into option A.

It would have been better to postpone the A/B decision until you had more information.  That might have increased project cost, perhaps for prototypes or more customer visits, you would have bought insurance against a much more expensive change later.

In a dynamic market, you should deal explicitly with uncertainty, instead of following The Orthodoxy of the Plan and sweeping uncertainty under the rug.

For more information:

You can find information about Galileo all over the place.

“When Corrections Fail: the Persistence of Misperceptions” by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler,,  is the study about how orthodoxies resist correction.

Flexible Product Development by Preston G. Smith, Josey-Bass 2007, Chapter 7 explains flexible decision making.

I offer a 2-day workshop on Flexible Product Development.  Contact me to learn more.

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