Derek Sivers

Fragile Plan vs Robust Plan


When I first had the idea for Wood Egg — publishing 16 books about 16 countries every year — I thought I would write them all myself. Visit 16 countries for 3 weeks each, doing intensive research the whole time. That’s 48 weeks, so I could do it again each year.

… But I had a baby on the way, so that idea lasted about a minute.

Then I thought of a journalist I know who would love that kind of life. I asked, she said yes, she flew to Singapore, and started working.

… But it was a really bad fit, so after five weeks, we called it quits.

Then I decided to hire one writer per-country. 16 authors to write 16 books. This went OK at first. Mohit Pawar did a great job with India, and Cameron Keng did a great job with Taiwan.

… But the people I hired for the other countries flaked out, so I realized this plan was still too fragile.

Making a Robust Plan

I really wanted this to work. I had to be smart. I had to make a better plan.

I re-read my notes on E-Myth, The Wisdom of Crowds, Crowdsourcing, and Here Comes Everybody. (In fact, I re-read my notes on 130 books. It was an enlightening week.)

I learned a few things:

  1. If you want help, it helps to get specific.
  2. A plan that’s too dependent on any one person is too fragile.

Getting Specific:

Before, I had a very vague outline of what I wanted the book to cover. I asked the authors to include sections on culture, government, business setup, hiring, banking, and marketing. That was it. The details were up to them. Go!

In hindsight, I can see how daunting it was. Too wide open. I’ve written about the need to get specific before — (see “Get specific” and “Restrictions will set you free”) — but I had forgotten to apply it to this.

So I spent a couple weeks and came up with 200 specific questions. Now, to write the book, we just had to answer those 200 questions.

It’s infinitely easier to find someone to answer a specific question than to find someone to impart wisdom on a vague topic. It puts the burden on the asker, to come up with a good question, and lifts the burden from the answerer.

Multiple People:

So that the book was not dependent on any one person, and the book was not one person’s opinion, I made a system where each of those 200 questions had to be answered by three different people. Ideally, one local, one foreigner, and one other.

16 countries × 3 researchers = 48 people. I used to find people in each country.

Of course, some disappeared, some never finished, and a few gave bad answers, but that was OK. Life happens. People’s circumstances change. I understand. But it won’t hurt my plan. If any one person is gone, I can still carry on.

When all 200 questions had 3 answers each, (16 × 200 × 3 = 9600 answers), I hired a few writer/editors to combine the answers into one essay per question. Again, one person disappeared, but it was easy for another to step in.

And that was the robust plan that got it done.

(Note: I was also visiting every country myself, and contributing my own research to the books. But it was important that the plan didn’t require me, either.)

Lessons learned?

If you’re starting a project or company:

  1. Don’t expect anyone to care as much as you.
  2. Don’t require them to think as hard about this as you have.
  3. Do expect them to change their mind and disappear.
  4. Make a robust plan that includes #1-3.

As the founder, the burden is on you to come up with a great plan, to lift the burden from the people helping you.

Then, when you find some brilliant people, it’s a great bonus, instead of an absolute necessity.