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On Not Planning

To the extent that one views man's coping with life as a process of problem solving, planning is a theoretical concept; it may be seen as the method of control by which a problem solver coordinates his attack on the various subproblems generated by his attempt to divide a problem into solvable components. The fact that planning is considered as a possible topic of instruction (in a sense in which speech, for example, is not) raises the question of how one characterizes what people do when they don't plan.

One technique for describing the non-planner's activity is to contrast it with that of an acknowledged expert in some solving genre of problems. This permits a description of the non-planner's activity by it's failure to show evidence of skills present in the expert's performance. There are two related but distinct aspects of such a procedure which leave it vulnerable to criticism:
  1. By characterizing non-planning as a deficient procedure, one may conclude too easily that there is a developmental sequence obtaining between non-planning and expert planning and that one should instruct people in how to plan what they are doing.
  2. The position contains the implicit assumption that planning is the ONE-BEST-WAY of solving problems. I question this assumption.
Let me recount two anecdotes which exemplify problem solving activity but involve planning only at a trivial level of application. My purpose is to develop an alternative approach to characterizing non-planning behavior.


Because my family sometimes watches television programs which are interrupted by commercials we don't want to hear, I installed a switch in the speaker circuit of the TV. The switch is the terminus of a 20' piece of lamp cord (number 18 two conductor wire). The children have a TV set in their bedroom/playroom, and they said they wanted the same modification on their set. I had available another length of cord and some alligator clips, so I agreed to do what they wanted. But - I lacked a switch, so I deferred the work. Some time later, when I was in the hardware store for another reason, I saw and picked up the switch I needed to complete the job. Several days later, when the children reminded me that I should 'fix' their TV, I tried to assemble the materials and discovered that in the interim I had used the wire for an extension cord. What to do? I dug into my box of old electrical stuff and pulled out a length of very thin three conductor wire (I stripped the third conductor form the other two [the three were separately insulated and not intertwined]), affixed the switch to the two wires and the other ends into the speaker circuit. The job was done. I am not entirely happy with the solution (the wire is too thin for the rough treatment it will receive from the children).

This episode could be construed as an example of 'poor planning' (had I been 'well organized', I would have recalled using all my #18 wire to make that extension cord and could have bought more in the store). I don't think of it that way at all. The problem of putting a switch in the circuit is simple enough that its solution is underdetermined. The goal I had was not so critical that it could not be deferred. I consider it a positive feature of this compromise solution that I prevented myself from spending 10 cents per foot for 20' of wire and managed to use something that I had been saving (Recall that old Yankee dictum: Eat it all, wear it out, use it up or save it). I believe that this everyday story exemplifies problem solving behavior which is not describable as sensible in any planning framework. I do not imply that planning could not be used to describe the behavior; the claim is that such a description would be forced, inappropriate, and would obscure and confuse more than it would clarify.

Cedar Hall, the house that Bob built.


The autumn after I built my house, I decided I needed a sawbuck. I had some left-over lengths of 2"x6" tongue and groove cedar and thought I could put it to good use. I assembled my tools and materials (I also had left-over a tin of 16 d. galvanized box nails), cut four board uniformly of a length for supporting logs above knee level, and angle cut one end of each board so the ends would stand flat on the ground when the legs of the sawbuck were crossed. At this point I encountered an unanticipated problem:

Sketch of a sawbuck

I had not thought of any good way of fixing the horizontal member to the crossed legs I would have at each end. Though the nails were a good 4.5" long, the thickness of 2 2x6's would be over 3" (finished lumber dimensions are smaller than the nominal specifications) so that the residue butt nailed to the joining member would not have enough purchase for stability (also: the wood, being cedar, was too weak to consider cutting and insetting the crossing members with each other). I was stalled, but I had materials assembled, and some time set aside for the task - so, I made a 'coffee table' because I had 'leg's precut that were of a good size to go with the chair I had in my living room.

The table is not fine, but it has served well in my household. The height is a good size for children, and the table is strong and stable enough to climb on. I never did make a sawbuck (which many times there-after I felt the lack of), but I believe I've gotten more satisfaction out of the table than any sawbuck could have given me. Would it make sense to describe this episode as a planning failure? It would be true that had I planned the sawbuck design to a sufficient level of detail, I would either have solved the joining problem or not have undertaken the task. Instead, I engaged myself in an ill-defined project (for which I felt not the least bit ill at ease) and produced a result different from what I had intended but one with which I am still quite happy.

I claim that both these examples represent problem solving behavior and deny that they can be characterized as either planning or as some imperfect developed form of planning. I know of no English word which adequately describes my behavior in these anecdotes. I have considered and rejected such synonym clusters as: [extemporaneous, improvised, impromptu, offhand, unpremeditated] and [perform, execute, discharge, accomplish, achieve, effect, fulfill] (All synonym comparisons are derived from Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, 1951 copyright).

Levi-Strauss describes such a form of behavior as 'BRICOLAGE' , the activity of 'BRICOLER' (a man who undertakes odd jobs, a jack of all trades [without the pejorative connotation of the English phrase], a kind of professional do-it-yourself man). I believe Levi-Strauss' appreciation of 'BRICOLAGE' is worth quoting extensively because it illuminates a fundamental alternative to a planning description of what people are doing (The following quotations are from pages 17 and 21 of The Savage Mind, U. Chicago Press, 1966).

"...The bricoler is adept at performing a large number of tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with 'what-ever is at hand', that is to say that with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed, to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew of enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. The set of a bricoler's means cannot therefor be defined in the terms of a project... It is to be defined only by its potential use or, putting it another way and in the language of the bricoler himself, because the elements are always collected and retained on the principle that 'they may one day be handy'. Such elements are specialized up to a point, sufficiently for the bricoler to need the equipment and knowledge of all trades and professions, but not enough for each of them to have only one definite and determined use..."
Claude Levi-Strauss
from The Savage Mind, (U. Chicago Press,1966)
In both the anecdotes I recounted, you noticed that the materials of the work were largely residual from some other project. This is one sense in which the earlier 'ends' play the part of 'means' in the following:
"...in the continual reconstruction from the same materials, it is always earlier ends which are called upon to play the parts of means....This formula, which could serve as the definition of 'BRICOLAGE', explains how an implicit inventory or conception of the total means available must be made...so that a result can be defined which will always be a compromise between the structure of the instrumental set and that of the project. Once it materializes the project therefor must be inevitably at a remove from the initial aim (which was moreover a mere sketch), a phenomenon which surrealists have felicitously called 'objective hazard'. Further, the bricoler also, and indeed principally, derives his poetry from the fact that he does not confine himself to accomplishment and execution: he speaks not only with things, as we have seen, but also through the medium of things: giving an account of his personality and life by the choices he makes between the limited possibilities. The bricoler might not ever complete his purpose but he always puts something of himself into it..."
Claude Levi-Strauss (ibid.)
There is more to be said about the contrast between bricolage and planning, but that further statement requires some analysis. A method I choose is similar to seeking information from 'pop-theories' of a phenomenon to focus attention on the significant features of whatever it is to be discussed. I propose that by examining the distinctions between clusters of opposite synonyms you may infer which dimensions of a kind of experience are significant axes of variations. This is a way of asking the past what distinctions have been found sufficiently important to embed them in the language for a while. Such a procedure is subject to criticism for being a sterile exercise in tautology, a mere refinement of what we already know. And yet, isn't it that precisely what we need? A clarification of our understanding of the place of plans, intentions and ideas? What dimensions of significant variation can we infer from contrasting the terms of TABLE I?

Table I

Common Core: a proposed method for doing or making something or of achieving a given end
DESIGN adds to PLAN an emphasis on intention in the disposition of individual members or details.
PLOT connotes a laying out in CLEARLY DISTINGUISHED AND CAREFULLY PROPORTIONED SECTIONS and attention to proper placing, due relation of parts and to scale.
SCHEME suggests more than PLAN does system and CAREFUL CHOICE or ORDERING OF DETAILS.

Common Core: what one proposes to accomplish or attain by doing or making something
SubGroup: stressing the clearly defined will to do or make something.
INTENTION what one HAS IN MIND to do or bring about
INTENT: suggests CLEARER FORMULATION and a greater DELIBERATENESS than intention.
DESIGN: retains the implication of CAREFUL ORDERING OF DETAILS.

Transition Word: AIM.
AIM: A CLEAR DEFINITION OF THAT WHICH ONE HOPES TO EFFECT and a direction of one's efforts or energies to its attainment

SubGroup: stressing what one does is affected by what one hopes to accomplish.
END: usually implies SUBORDINATION OF MEANS to the end
OBJECT: usually implies the end is determined by a wish or need in contrast with a principle or logical necessity.
GOAL: usually implies STRUGGLE AND ENDURANCE of hardship.

Common Core: something existing in the mind as a representation of that which it apprehends or comprehends; or a formulation of an opinion, a plan, a design, or the like.
IDEA: the general word of the common meaning.
CONCEPT: the idea of a thing which the mind conceives after knowing many instances of the genus, species, or other category and devoid of all details except those which are typical or generic.
CONCEPTION: the activity of the mental power of conceiving, or of bringing into existence, an idea of something NOT YET REALIZED OR GIVEN OUTWARD FORM; it often implies not only exercise of reflective powers but also of the imagination colored by feeling; the term therefore more OFTEN APPLIES TO A PECULIAR OR INDIVIDUAL IDEA than to one held by men as a whole or an entire class.
NOTION: adds to IDEA's vagueness the suggestion of caprice or tentative or HALF-FORMED PURPOSE or intention.
IMPRESSION: an idea coming into the mind as a result of an external stimulus.

Under PLAN, one contrast stands out: DESIGN and SCHEME imply attention to minute detail in contrast with PLAN (which focuses on the methods used in confronting a problem) and PLOT (which focuses on the partition of the task). A different kind of contrast appears between PLAN and CONCEPTION. The axis of variation is from the private, the idiosyncratic (CONCEPTION) and the social, the communicable (PLAN). Four other dimensions of variation center on the END of the activity. The first axis of variation is the clarity with which the END is formulated: the range is from the vagueness of NOTION with increasing specificity through INTENT and INTENTION to the implicit precision of AIM. Feasibility is a concern represented by the distinction between OBJECTIVE (which implies definite attainability) and GOAL (which is non-committal in respect of feasibility but suggests the difficulty of attainment of the end). A third distinction is between the admitted relative dominance of means and ends. These planning centered words cluster focus on ENDS, but our exposure to bricolage shows how important are the means in determining the end of an activity. The final variable is the extent of commitment to the declared ends of the activity; PURPOSE is much more resolute than INTENTION. Let my try to represent the discriminations the language suggests in Table II:

Table II
are problems solved?
UNIQUENESSAre general techniquesgeneral methodsresource dependent
employed or idiosyncraticprocedures.
intentions expressed?
clear or problematic?
MEANS/ENDSWhich is more important?indeterminateMEANS
RESOLUTIONHow is an impediment met?with PURPOSEby deferring the
accomplishment of
the specific end.
What bricolage undertakes usually appears possible; what it accomplishes may well be something else.

Having teased out these difference between planning and bricolage, let me observe that the two are not discontinuous, that all activities are a mixture of the dominances of the polar tendencies represented here. The second point I will make, and the more important of the two, is that the relationship is not directional: there is no reason to suppose that planning is a more nearly perfect form of bricolage. If some inclusion relation must be sought, one could easily view planning as a highly specialized technique for solving critical problems whose solutions demand scarce resources.

What have we found to be the value of discussing activity as bricolage rather than planning? The first advantage is that it is more like people's everyday activities than planning is. The second is that it is more nearly compatible with a view of mind as a process controlled by contention of multiple objectives competing for resources than is planning, which seems to call for a single center of decision or a chain of decision steps in a pre-ordered form. The most important advantage derived from discussing bricolage is that it can provide us with an image for the process of the mind under self construction in these respects:
  1. If the structures already in the mind are viewed as being like the tools of the bricoler, we can appreciate immediately how they constrain our undertaking and accomplishing any activity.
  2. One can imagine a person maintaining a mental inventory of resources, a kit of tools, a supply of various oddments of knowledge because he judges them to be the sorts of things that have had much use or 'may well come in handy'.
  3. But not only does constraint come from this set of limited resources; also comes productivity, the creation of new things not exactly suited to the situation, perhaps, but none the less of genuine novelty.
  4. Lastly, seeing the mind as self construction through bricolage presents a clear image of the uniqueness of every person, for:
    a. Each will have his own bag of tricks useful in his past and which he will bring to bear upon some present problem.
    b. Each will have his own set of different, alternative objectives to take up as chance puts the means at his disposal.
    c. Through this process, each will have developed his own history of conceptions and appreciations of situations.

Publication notes:

  • Written in 1976. Unpublished.
  • Subsumed in Chapter 1, "The Development of Objectives," in Computer Experience and Cognitive Development, John Wiley, 1985.

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    After Thoughts

    A favorite picture, symbolizing for me the way we all put our minds together out of bits and pieces of whatever happens to be laying around. Miriam used to complain about my sharing this picture with others, as proof to the world she had no taste for clothes coordination at all. She has become generous enough to let me show this picture without complaint.