Legal Business

“Plans Are Useless, But Planning Is Indispensable”

Yesterday I kicked off Planning Week with a quote from Helmuth von Moltke: "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy."

That doesn't mean that you shouldn't plan, however.

One of the greatest planners in history was the guy who laid out - and got right - the incredibly complex Operation Overlord, better known as the D-Day landings during World War II. General Dwight David Eisenhower said something that has stuck with me since I first heard it 40 years ago: "Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."1

Consider Planning Error #2 in light of Planning Error #1, Relying on plans leads to failure:

Planning Error #2: Lack of planning leads to failure.

Most project managers will state loudly their agreement with this thesis... yet in the press of action, it's amazing how many jump right to execution, either skipping planning entirely or paying it mere lip service. In fact, project managers have a phrase that encapsulates this problem. "Ready, fire, aim" is PM-speak for the failure to plan.

(Disclaimer: I have been guilty of "ready, fire, aim" myself on occasion.)

Sometimes, you must act before you plan. In an emergency, often you must respond immediately, in a project as well as in life. If you've planned for that emergency, of course, your response is likely to be easier to muster, but not even the best planning covers every contingency. However, not everything in a project is an emergency... and with a good project manager, even true emergencies won't feel out of control to the rest of the team.

Even in emergencies, try to limit "unplanned" action to whatever is needed to stabilize the situation. Don't let the need to act quickly on one step spread to acting-without-planning on all steps.

True emergencies are not the norm, however, although unprepared project managers can make everything seem like an emergency. As Eisenhower says, you need to get serious about planning... though remember von Moltke's dictum about not getting locked into plans.

von Moltke noted in particular the effects of opposing action on plans. However, plans fail even when there is no "enemy." It's a problem of abstraction, as Alfred Korzybski noted and as I'll discuss in the next installment during Planning Week.