As Ike wrote 75 years ago, ‘Plans are Worthless, Planning is Indispensable.’

At this moment, when predictions and forecasts are flooding the webways, let’s remind ourselves of what Dwight Eisenhower said about the crisp distinction between “plans” and “planning”: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are worthless, but planning is indispensable.”


The statement’s simplicity is its superpower. Be agile, challenge assumptions, don’t deny changing circumstances – but don’t over-react, either.


In fact, Eisenhower’s “observation” was actually proved by researchers at the University of Texas who conducted a mathematical analysis- I will spare you the computational squiggles but you can find them – here


“While following the original plan in constantly changing circumstances is often not a good idea -the existence of a pre-computed original plan enables us to produce an almost-optimal strategy (a strategy that would have been computationally difficult to produce on a short notice without the pre-existing plan.)”


I don’t think anyone will question that today, every business is faced with a “constantly changing” dynamic. The study answers the paradox of why planning is worthwhile while the underlying plan is “worthless.”


As we face the battles of 2024 – marketing struggles, sales wars, consumer campaigns, media skirmishes – it is essential to keep his advice in mind. We should always be planning, and always be in a constant state of predicting.


It’s the opposite of the convenient, sound-bite friendly manufacturing output of the prediction economy, industry-by-industry forecasts promising a fixed path forward.


Human beings are hard-wired to care about what’s happening next; it’s a survival adaptation, which makes it immensely satisfying be dangled a glimpse of the future of food, fashion, technology, national security, shower curtain design. Even an oddity round-up beckons.


Satisfying, yes, but not that useful. What is useful, though, getting back to Ike, is that you plan hard for 2024 – taking individual data points relevant to your industry into account – and then be prepared ready to treat your plan as written on an Etch-a-Sketch, not the Rosetta Stone.


Here are three tips for making your business Eisenhower-ready:


Don’t be afraid to question the plan and reward the mini-whistleblowers who do.


We all know what happens when the power of groupthink is marshalled in support of mindless plan-following behavior. It is hard to resist. Fixed courses of action become part of the culture, instantiated and re-instantiated by PowerPoint slides, Gantt charts, and other talismans of corporate fealty.


Meetings and sub-meetings are built around the execution of the plan, and social pressure is an unspoken – actually, often spoken – obstacle to agility.  Those who dare to differ can be punished or seen as troublemakers.


I call them mini-whistleblowers because their objective isn’t to bring down the edifice like Erin Brockovich or Daniel Ellsberg, but to raise uncomfortable questions about givens that need to be interrogated.


One way around this trap is to use examples from popular culture that demonstrate how planning achieved success through creative variance from the plan  In the movie Ocean’s 11, Rusty (Brad Pitt) challenges Danny’s (George Clooney) heist plan; eventually his constant pushing for an alternative entry point results in a (temporarily) successful outcome. Rusty kept predicting and re-predicting, and he convinced Danny to change the plan.


It’s a good model for collaborative change. And of course, in Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s recognized that to accomplish his goal of destroying the ring, he couldn’t travel alone and had to create the Fellowship.


These anchoring examples create a context that encourages mid-flight change.


Create an ambiguity-friendly culture.


This must start at the top, which isn’t easy because CEOs – and the entire C-Suite – are captives of certainty. They are skeptical of Hamletian questioning. They are loathe to change their minds in public; it is a sign of weakness, when in fact under the right circumstances it is a sign of strength.


Those behaviors are then mirrored organizationally; who gets promoted by not being like the boss? The plan’s religion hardens into dogma. What makes that even more difficult to shake is that the brain is wired to resist ambiguity. Ambiguity aversion is a cognitive bias. Uncertainly makes us comfortable. We become dangerously locked-in.


Addressing this rigidity is the unspoken and neglected challenge of human resource departments. They need to coach and mentor leaders to challenge inherited wisdom of all kinds – especially the sacredness of plans – and build adaptability tests into their hiring grids.


Hold regular plan recalibration sessions.


Call them Ike Bites.


Divide the meeting attendees into red and blue teams, like in cybersecurity exercises, and let the attacks begin. I have zero doubt that the red team, the offensive one, will identify weakness and vulnerabilities – due to changing circumstances, internally and externally – which had been undetected.


Another somewhat painful but useful exercise is to pretend everyone who wrote the plan was fired. It’s an invaluable thought experiment, not philosophically different from the HR concept of making people interview for the job they have. We all know what happens when someone gets axed, particularly if they were the plan’s author.  A weight is lifted and assumptions are gleefully shredded.


What people thought silently becomes freely articulated.


I recognize that what I am proposing is deeply nuanced. Companies are commonly both victims of a lack of planning and risky obeisance to it.  Watching spaghetti harden on the plate, and throwing it against the wall, are both dangerous outcomes.


Intellectual vigilance and humility are the only answer.


Source: INC

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