Plans Are Useless

“On preparing for battle, I have always found plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”Dwight D. Eisenhower

Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. As someone who spends a good deal of time pursuing strategic goals, I totally agree with this quote. Let me explain.

Developing plans forces us to go through the process (i.e. planning) of identifying the end goal — where we are trying to get to. It is amazing how often that critical element is missing from our efforts. Oh sure, we know the general direction we are headed, but have we specifically identified what success looks like? In military planning they call this Commander’s Intent — how things should look at the end of the mission. When people are crystal clear on the desired outcome, the chance of you actually getting there increases dramatically.

Developing plans also allows us to identify what variables are critical to our success, and what is just noise coming from someone else’s perspective (usually related to their desired outcome). It separates the important from the urgent, so you are not trying to make that determination when someone else is working diligently to make their goal your own. Developing a plan also helps identify parameters around the identified project, whether that is a particular timeline, budget, or some other resource constraint. Parameters can actually help you be more innovative because it removes the “if onlys” that serve as a distraction from the task at hand.

The steps outlined above relate to the planning process. Here’s why the plans themselves are useless: Plans are a static document built around the perceived best course of action at the time they were developed. And the moment they are “finished,” variables are going to change. When people believe their job is to follow the plan, that is what they are going to focus on — not the changing variables that may render specific tactics within the plan obsolete. For planning to be most effective, you have to give your people permission to take actions not spelled out in advance  . . . provided those actions increase the likelihood of reaching the desired outcome. Too often, our people see plans as marching orders to which they will be held accountable (even if they don’t believe them to be the best course of action). After all, who wants to be the one to point out that the “plan” the leader developed is wrong?

What if instead of developing plans, the result of your planning efforts was a framework that clearly articulated the end goal and parameters that would guide the effort?  And what if you specifically articulated the expectation that your people would raise concerns or highlight unexpected variables as the effort moved forward — that you knew that things could change in real time and they had permission to adapt the course of action to increase the likelihood of reaching the end goal? Wow, that feels different.

How are you spending your time . . . on the useless or the indispensable?

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