Strategic Plans Are Less Important than Strategic Planning


Mention the word “plan” to most managers and the image that springs to their minds might well be a travel plan. Drawn up by travel agents, these lay out in clear and certain terms the sequence of your trip and what to expect when, specifying: where you’re going from, your destination, where you’ll stay en route and when, how you’ll travel, and so forth.

Or they’ll think of the kind of plans builders employ, often referred to as “blueprints.” The result is much the same as with travel: a specific beginning and end with precise steps along the way. Both plans are neat, prescribed, determined — and manageable.  You figure out what to do and then do it.

But not all types of plans have that level of precision.  In a fluid, unpredictable environment you need to have a very different understanding of plans and planning.  A case in point is military strategy.

Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, also known as Moltke the Elder, lived between 1800 and 1891. He was a German Field Marshal and is credited with creating a new approach to directing armies in the field. This entailed developing a series of options rather than simply a single plan. Moltke the Elder held the view that only the commencement of any military operation was plannable. He famously stated that “no plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength.” This has also been popularly interpreted as “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”

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Much later Winston Churchill (1874 — 1965) came out with this pithy statement: “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.” As a graduate of Britain’s elite Royal Military College at Sandhurst he would certainly have read or heard about Moltke the Elder’s insights on plans and planning.

The U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890 — 1969) had a similar take: “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” This statement came from a speech to the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference in Washington, D.C. on November 14, 1957. He went on to explain: “There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of ‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.” Like Churchill, Eisenhower appears to be channelling Moltke the Elder.

Like military strategy, business strategy is developed and applied in a fluid, unpredictable environment, and the distinction that Moltke, Churchill, and Eisenhower draw between planning and the plan is very pertinent for senior executives charged with crafting a company’s strategy.  All too often, I find, executives seem to share the traveler’s and builder’s understanding of planning and the trick to helping them create a strategy that will actually work lies in getting them to rethink that view.  What does that involve?  Let me share with you a few principles I’ve learned from my more than 25 years of facilitating strategic planning sessions.

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Think of the plan as a guidance tool. The problem for many managers is that their expectations are all skewed from what can be realistically achieved via a strategic plan. Their image is more of the house-plan type or travel itinerary. They anticipate that by doing the necessary analysis and writing down how their business will succeed the world will be converted from uncertain to certain. In their eyes the strategic plan becomes a device for controlrather than one of guidance.

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