Is There Ever a Time for a “Plan B?”

Plan B is really a euphemism for let’s give up and try something else. It’s either a sign of poor planning up front or a sign of surrender. Plan B is striving toward the same goal after significant expenditure of effort that has stalled and a less desirable goal is selected instead. Often it is a sign of having gone too far down the wrong road – failing to fail early and adjusting the plan in a timely manner, or having consciously decided that the original goal no longer mapped to the most desirable outcome.

Plan B is settling for something less that Plan A. It is not the same as letting Plan A go and going for a next plan A. Plan B or C or D are lesser alternatives to the preferred outcome. In modern parlance, this may be called a “pivot.” This is sort of like a child saying “Can’t play with that new toy? I didn’t want it anyway and I’ll play with my old toys instead.”

Jocko Willink considers a Plan B to be a failure in planning. It diffuses your focus, makes quitting (shifting to Plan B) an option, rather than full focus on adjusting to making Plan A a success. It can be especially bad if Plan B is simply don’t do Plan A. Think about going to the gym or not. Not having a beer to meet your health goals and then deciding to “just have one.” The typical Plan B is an invitation to failure as a copout or the start of the slippery slope to status quo and inertia.

So now that I’ve put Plan B down as a desirable alternative. Are there times when a “Plan B” are useful. Let’s think about a “Plan B” that still moves you toward Plan A. As there is a difference between the standard Plan B and this one, we’ll call it plan b. In this case, we are consciously addressing contingencies and should have even done so while planning plan A. We aren’t settling for a less desirable alternative, we are finding an alternative to move toward Plan A.

What if you pull a muscle when exercising and can’t do your planned routine? A plan b will provide an alternative exercise routine that might not provide the gains of your initial plan, but continues to move you towards your Plan A or reduces backward momentum from your goal. If you strained your calf, maybe you can do yoga and some other form of cardio to maintain fitness. Maybe you can do exercises at a lower number of reps and less intensity as you heal.

Maybe you didn’t get the budget you needed for your primary Plan A. Maybe you can trim expenses to make up for the shortfall. Maybe there is an alternative route to Plan A that you had not considered before knowing the exact financial parameters. If there is a way to still move toward achieving Plan A, plan b works, but in reality, it should have been part of Plan A if you’d done due diligence in planning to begin with.

Hopefully I’ve conveyed the danger of an (easier) Plan B that diverts you from your primary goal or target. Consider instead a supportive plan b that continues to move you towards your primary objective and provides a route back to Plan A. Plan b should a detour, not a true change of course.