I was recently reminded of something that happened a while ago – I was walking down Harris Street in Pyrmont on my way to join friends at a pub for lunch, when I was approached by a well-dressed woman of a certain age. (I have always wanted to use that phrase in my writing, and now I can cross it off my list…)

She was clearly pretty pissed off, and after asking whether I was familiar with the local area (I said ‘not particularly’ but that didn’t seem to deter her) she demanded to know the location of a nearby restaurant with white tablecloths and decent waiters and great food. Once we had overcome my understandable but as it turned out, erroneous, assumption that she was looking for a particular restaurant, the name and address of which she had misplaced, she gave the somewhat startling explanation that she was visiting Sydney from Melbourne and had been looking for some ‘good food’ since Thursday night. Of course, that explained her general air of grumpiness – anyone would be cross (not to mention exhausted and close to starving) after roaming our streets for three days without finding any decent food.

Intrigued, I asked her why she thought the furthest end of Harris Street would be a likely place. (In those days it was not an area known for its clusters of white-table-clothed top restaurants.) She replied that she had ended up here by chance, having been walking for hours – and that a Melbourne friend had promised her there was good food to be found in Sydney, but ‘obviously they were wrong’.

She declined my offer to show her the pub that I was heading for. I then made the big mistake of suggesting that she might have more luck if she looked in the Good Food Guide or checked some online reviews before randomly wandering the streets. Clearly deciding Sydney was devoid of intelligent locals as well as good food, she stomped off. For all I know, the poor women is there still….

The point of this story for us is its resonance with how we often ‘plan’ major projects (or not). Have you ever come up with an idea, and a rough sense of what the outcome would feel like….but never clarified exactly what you wanted, nor put in place a plan for actually getting there? And then wondered why your project didn’t actually succeed? I know I have.

It comes down to finding the right balance between planning and spontaneity. Especially when we are looking for a creative solution or fresh idea for rethinking a career, it’s tempting to abandon all our usual rigour and just wing it, generating a few exciting sounding ideas and then doing some actions in a haphazard way.

The Catch-22 is that overdoing the planning can kill a great idea stone-dead, so you need to actively consider the right mix for your project, so you can balance the creative, free-ranging idea generation and more detailed, rigorous planning.

I know that I am great at the ideas phase, but less organised when it comes to persistence and accurate follow-through. Although I was amused by my street encounter, I recognised her situation as the kind of pickle I have ended up in more than once in my work, having the start of an idea, then charging off without getting clear on outcomes, research or processes.

Can you relate to this? Which one is your challenge – the planning bit or the allowing of some spontaneity?

Joanna Maxwell

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