| |

The futility of "Plan B"

A net not a hammock. 

What if Martin Luther King in his legendary address back in 1963 said, “I have a second favorite dream”? What if Kennedy said “We choose to go to the moon, if not, we’ll settle for a sub-orbital flight”? Do you think all of the individuals who rose to the challenges that followed these great speeches would have bothered with any of the endeavors that was required off of them?

The biggest reason behind why these speeches were so empowering is because they never interested themselves with “what if we couldn’t?”. They never bothered with a Plan B

Take a regular occurrence from the lives we lead today for example, a zoom call. The moment we realize that the meeting is being recorded, our attention span with regards to the conversation going on in the meeting drops like a soap from a wet hand, just because we know there is a backup, which we never watch anyway. 

Having an alternative to the central goal, is effectively the first step towards not achieving it. A research conducted by the scientists at Wisconsin found that people who had a backup plan had a “lowered desire to achieve their primary goal”. Business coaches note that the professionals with a well-prepared plan B failed more frequently than the ones who went all in with plan A. An easier example of how plan B is detrimental to plan A becomes evident when we see that just preparing a backup plan emerges out of an opportunity cost on the resources that could have been implemented in the further advancement of the primary plan. 

Plan A is more impacted by a Plan B if it is something that requires a lot of sheer effort. A plan where it is essential to venture far out of our comfort zones to achieve success. That however is the truth behind all of our biggest of endeavors like scaling up a business, acquiring a new skill, reorientation of organizational goals etc. So now what do we do? Abandon the concept of a plan B? Not get on a plane which can emergency land itself in case of a pilot error assuming that since there is a technical support for pilot error, the airline therefore must be recruiting sub-par aviators? As investors, not invest in businesses with founders who have well plotted back up plans? How is that sound advice? 

To answer this, let’s draw a parallel from motor racing. Almost all global race regulations restrict every team to a single race car. So, do the teams just come with whatever they think is the best possible car, put a driver in it and fly back home? No, what they do, and what has always been the biggest expense of every race team is “preparing for an eventuality”. A race manager ensures that there are layers upon layers of fail safes, vast stocks of replaceable parts and a large team of mechanics to keep the single race car, the Plan A, going till the end of the line. The team that wins is always the one which had the best combination of a Plan A and the preparedness for the eventuality that a component of the plan A may fail. There is a fundamental difference between a “backup” that diverts from the achievement of a goal and a “contingency” that further ensures it.  

Two ways to ensure we are preparing a supporting contingency rather than a backup are as follows: 

  • De-risking plan A: The steps that are being added should be towards keeping plan A pointed in the direction it was aimed for. If the steps are pointing it increasingly away, then it is plan B and not a contingency. 

  • Test of Absence: How far is the end goal changing in absence of the supporting steps that have been added? If the change is significant then the steps subconsciously are taking you towards a different, mostly an easier goal. 

So, is there an alternative course of action that can provide some degree of safety without it being deteriorative to plan A? Yes, and that is if the outcome of the secondary plan is the least favorite, the bare minimum. This supporting plan may not justify the effort to outcome ratio at all but it’s only objective is to be a rung above the worst case scenario, and in some cases this course of action ends up in increasing the desirability of the plan A itself. 

That said, the combination of plan A + plan “bare minimum” is only better than that of A & B, and like we saw in the historic speeches in the very beginning, nothing ensures the achievement of the highest of goals than having just one plan and going all in. 

The best example of how successful is the strategy of not having anything, except a contingent proofed plan A, are we ourselves. For what is the human race if not dependent upon one body with our entire medical science advancements to contingent proof it.  

Co-authored by: Amarjeet Ghatak, Tarun Chakraborty and Ramesh Jude Thomas.