In intensive O2 workshops, we usually reserve a session to talk about “anti-patterns” for self-management. These “anti-patterns” are common solutions to certain problems, which instead of solving them, tend to make them worse. Many “best practices” from traditional management come into effect here. In particular, when we talk about “deadlines” as an anti-pattern, I find that many are horrified. What do you mean there are no deadlines? How do we plan then? Where are the schedules? I dedicate this text to explaining a little better how planning works in an agile, responsive or evolutionary organization.


So let’s start talking about a controversial case, as I’ve heard from some people: Very cool this business of working without deadlines. But Christmas is always on the 25th of December! That’s an event.

At Target Teal, we organize regular workshops (events), especially O2 intensive ones. Often these trainings take place in other states (outside São Paulo) and have important logistical issues that need to be defined in advance. One of them is the choice of an appropriate space for the workshop.

The leasing of space usually incurs costs and is done before the workshop has people registered. In other words, we set a date in the future for the event to be held and we commit ourselves to our participants to hold it on that date. We can call this a deadline, but I prefer to understand it as a self-imposed systemic restriction (as opposed to a simply imposed systemic restriction such as Christmas). Is it possible to change the workshop date? Yes, but usually this generates costs and dissatisfaction.

Gantt charts and schedules

If you were to ask a PMP-certified project manager how he might plan such a “fixed date” event, you would probably hear something like this:

  1. Identify all the tasks needed to run the event;
  2. Estimate the duration of tasks (probably in hours);
  3. Create a Gantt Chart, linking all tasks;
  4. Establish deadlines with a certain amount of leeway on top of the estimates;
  5. Assign tasks to team members;
  6. Monitor the plan and keep on top of people for deadlines.
Gantt Chart

Sounds like a perfect path, right? It would be, if the world were predictable and there were no black swans (completely unexpected events that are beyond what we know).

This approach is connected with the predict and control (or command and control) paradigm. Following this logic, those who plan,  seek to 1) create a plan to be executed with the future in mind, and 2) to establish control mechanisms to guarantee the follow-up of this plan.

Such mechanisms are usually based on two premises. The first has to do with the predictability of the world, which is evidently false. Of course, many project managers understand this and create feedback and adaptation mechanisms in their plans. But still the focus remains on adjusting the plan, as if that were a truth to be followed. My opinion is that this is a huge waste of time.

The second is McGregor’s theory X of human motivation, that is, they see people as disengaged and needing external stimuli to work. Usually people say: But so-and-so will never do the project if he doesn’t have a deadline! We’ve already covered this subject of motivation on our blog so I won’t go into it too much here.

Perhaps this has already happened to you: at the end of a project you make a big list of things that should have been foreseen before starting and therefore should be in the plan. You also get the distinct feeling that the people around you aren’t engaged enough or are simply incompetent. Common lines in this scenario include “I didn’t plan it enough” or “People don’t cooperate”. This situation indicates that you are still stuck in the predicting and controlling mode.

How to do it then?

Continuing with the example of the Target Teal workshops… We don’t have Gantt Charts and timelines, although in some cases these artifacts might be useful (my criticism is of the mental model, not the tools). Instead of “planning” (in the traditional sense), we invest our energy in being mindful of the present and constant adaptation. This is what we call feeling and responding. We achieve this through the following points:

  1. Constant review and revision of work
  2.  Processing tensions
  3. Well-defined roles and structure
  4. Small decisions

Constant review of the work

First of all, we constantly look at the work we are doing. This happens weekly, together in our circle meeting, where everyone gives updates on their projects. At this point, people can raise concerns about the progress of a particular event and question the project owner. For example:

In a past workshop, we noticed that results are better when we start outreach at least 1 month in advance. I noticed that you haven’t started advertising yet and it’s 3 weeks away. Are you aware of this? Do you need any help?

This kind of interaction at regular intervals causes people to look into the now all the time. Of course, the expected date of the workshop is also present in the conversation. But the main focus is on what we’re going to do from now on, which we call processing tensions.

Processing tensions

We may come across a black swan, that is, an unexpected event. An example of this was when I decided to hold an O2 workshop at a client’s company. I made an exchange, some spots in the workshop in return for space. In this way I didn’t have to spend money on rent and was able to reduce the risk of renting a space and not having enough people to fill the workshop. What I didn’t foresee was that the place didn’t offer comfort (good chairs) for the participants, as is common in coworkings and spaces for events. To make matters worse, I didn’t collect feedback from participants on the first day (only on the second). When I found out they had back pain from the bad chairs, it was too late.

You can’t change the past, but we can adapt to the future. To resolve this “tension”, I created a “Perfect O2 Intensive Workshop” checklist. In it I put all the criteria for a successful edition. I also showed it to other organizers and many decided to adopt the checklist, adding to it as new discoveries were made.

Note that this type of action cannot be identified a priori from the error, but only a posteriori. More hours of planning (common strategy of predicting and controlling) would never give rise to this checklist. I invoke here a phrase from the agile manifesto that supports this vision of feeling and responding:

Responding to changes is more than following a plan.

Well defined roles and structures

To be responsive it is necessary to have well-defined structural contours. This means clarity about what everyone decides and how. At Target Teal, as Workshop Organizar I can set the price of the intensive workshop edition I “own” and even choose/invite who will participate with me. This authority is very clear and defined. At least until this creates a problem and someone proposes a change in the organizational structure.

Imagine, however, if I had to ask permission from a manager or the group all the time for actions I want to take. Demands for “adaptation” would become time-consuming and slow due to this sequence of necessary bureaucratic approvals. This would reduce my incentive to be “adaptive”, especially if I couldn’t change the rules of the game. In other words, plastered structures or structures without clear roles do not create incentives for people to respond to changes. It’s easier to follow someone else’s plan, even if that plan doesn’t make any sense.

Small decisions

Lastly, I highlight an agile and lean principle that makes all the difference in feeling and responding. We usually look with some suspicion on how we can focus so much on the present when we think about big decisions. We are going to open a new business unit that will cost us 5 million dollars! How are we not going to plan this?

We need to learn to prototype before anything else. To reduce risks and uncertainties, a “probe” or experiment helps a lot. In other words, it is worth breaking the big bets into small bets. This reduces uncertainty, anxiety and greatly increases our effectiveness (ability to get it right). Run away from big decisions and embrace small experiments.

Letting go of plans and schedules

Letting go of our tendency to want to control the future and molding the world to our will requires a certain amount of courage. I deal with it daily, and remind myself that 99% of my worries never materialize! I manage to set aside plans and schedules because I believe in my ability to respond to the present. :)

Hopefully I’ve clarified how “planning” works in a responsive organization. If you have any questions, comment below. Do you also deal with this challenge of letting go of predicting and controlling? How does your organization feel and respond?

Translated by Tanya Stergiou