Service of Plan B

August 29th, 2016

Categories: Plan B, Planning Ahead, Research, Strategy, Studies

I’m a Plan B kind of person. If a project isn’t rolling out the way I’d like, I develop contingencies and options so as not to let an unanticipated glitch get in the way of a project’s success.

Turns out that most are like me and we’re all wrong, according to recent research reported in the Wall Street Journal by Rachel Emma Silverman. However, I’m not convinced by the experiment she cited that the conclusions are justified.

Silverman explained why you’re better off without a Plan B from findings published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Jihae Shin, assistant professor of management and human resources at the University of Wisconsin’s business school and Katherine Milkman, a Wharton associate professor, co-authored the results of a series of studies.

Silverman quotes Shin: “Simply contemplating backup plans make you want to achieve the primary goal less, which makes you put less effort into it. As a result, you have lower chances of success in your primary goal.”

The reporter described one of the experiments in which “participants were asked to unscramble sentences and told that if they performed well, they would receive a free snack.” Some were told they might not win a snack and to think of a backup plan of other ways to get free food on campus.

“Researchers found that participants who were prompted to think of a backup plan to get free snacks did significantly worse on an assigned task than those who were simply told to do the task with no additional instructions.” The key word is prompted. That action skewed the results, in my opinion because the researchers distracted some and not others so they weren’t equally concentrating on unscrambling the sentences.

Silverman wrote: “When people anticipate that they’ll feel really bad if they don’t complete a task, they will work harder, Dr. Shin said. But if they have thought of a Plan B, they might feel more comfortable slacking off.”

I think that what is significant and relevant is the timing of when to think of additional strategies. You wouldn’t make a Plan B at the start and you might not do it at all if your plan is going well. Actually, in the next quote, Dr. Shin agreed with me, therefore watering down his theory: “You might first want to do everything you can to achieve your primary goal and really focus on that for a period of time, before you develop a detailed backup plan.”

While the research focused on individuals, Dr. Shin suggested that team leaders might want to have a second team develop a Plan B, leaving the first team to work on the project.

Wouldn’t having teams work at cross-purposes impact enthusiasm and morale? Do you start a project thinking of alternate strategies or do you follow a strategy you believe in before thinking of alternatives? Does the setup of the experiment seem flawed?

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10 Responses to “Service of Plan B”

  1. Debby Brown Said:

    In this day and age, in my opinion, we all must have a Plan B, C and D, regardless of the circumstances., i.e. The recent JFK “apparent” shootings where there was no “Plan B” in place. While it turned out not to involve active shooters, it was a good example of having alternative plans if one encountered such an incident.

    Planning any event outside: from a product introduction to a wedding or Central Park fund-raiser (all of which I have experienced first hand) needs back up plans, aka Plan B, C, etc. (rain? Unexpected pop-up tornado blows down party tent?)

    I guess it depends on how important/large/critical is the event/circumstance. As you’ve guessed, I try to always plan alternative scenarios; even Plan B for road closures, Block Fair closures, etc.

    Maybe it has to do with age? Experience? Life lessons?

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I think it is a combo of personality and life experience. Sometimes there is no Plan B, C or D. I remember one event I ran early in my career at a Florida hotel with a mishap which taught me to ask catering managers from that moment on, “What is going on next door?” [And I’ve been to events after this where the event planners did NOT ask.] What happened? All the events in a lineup of ballroom spaces had the cocktail hour outside each ballroom. Next to us was a Southern Belle-themed ball where the women dressed in gowns with enormous hoop skirts. As a result, it was very difficult for our guests to reach their hallway space–and drinks–and plenty of executive faces looked out of joint.

    Another typical glitch: Next door to your industry gala is something with a big band playing its heart out while attendees at your event stare at the speaker who comes off like a silent movie star without the captions because he/she can’t be heard over the din. By sharing your schedule, you can make sure that the band takes a break when your speeches are going on. An easy Plan B is to have someone phone the catering staff to remind the neighbor to shhhhhh the band two minutes before speech time.

  3. hb Said:

    I’m with you one this one.

    As any chess player, or successful general, could tell you, it pays to have “what if,” or back-up plans to better prepare for unexpected eventualities. There is no way of knowing, no matter how well one studies the details of a tactical situation to project, with absolute certainty, an opponent’s move after you have made your move.

    Good blog subject.

  4. Martha Takayama Said:

    Although I am not sure that I structure the development of Plan B’s totally consciously, I generally understand that things may not go as planned and make allowances for having to regroup. Performers, actors, musicians, dancers and conductors always operate with a Plan B, in the form of understudies and alternates. Today, in a world so fraught with not only the unanticipated but the unthinkable in all areas of activity at any time, it seems necessary to act with great caution. Consequently Plan Bs have assumed more importance than ever.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Excellent examples! And with more than one actor on stage, should one forget his/her lines, the other one must improvise in a second! And imagine a surgeon who confronts a surprise with a patient on the operating table. As Debby noted, he/she might end up using Plan E to save a life.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I don’t play chess but I’ve seen plenty of vintage war films on Turner Classic Movies–and detective yarns where you’re made to believe a suspect must be “the one” and he/she isn’t–to know that little goes as planned and rarely as first thought.

    The more responses I read here, the more I think the finding of this study is inaccurate.

  7. Hank Goldman Said:

    Of course it’s not a good idea to start a project with plan B in mind. However, most times I find myself having to invent a “work around”… So if the idea is to solve the problem, one way or the other. …. I actually may be thinking that having a plan B is a good idea.

  8. hb Said:


    There are many routine projects that come with few surprises. Say you need to print something late at night and the office supply stores are closed and you run out of toner. It happens. But you wouldn’t let the possibility of this happening stop you from attacking the project in the first place. If you’d ordered toner calmly before you’d run out and had it in the desk drawer, would that be Plan B planning or just common sense?

    If you are counting on a free lance person you’ve never worked with before, wouldn’t you give them a deadline a few days short of the real one in the event they did a terrible job or didn’t meet the deadline–so you wouldn’t be in the soup? Is that Plan B planning that distracts you from your objectives or again, common sense to avoid a crisis?

  9. Hank Goldman Said:

    If you forgot to do the common sense part, you will be forced to invent a plan B. No?

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    You are darn ‘tootin! And you point to yet another reason the experiment is flawed and therefore the conclusions iffy.

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