These days as we move from one unforeseeable event to the next, it might seem that any effort to plan is a waste of time. Dwight Eisenhower would agree, at least in part, when he said, “Plans are worthless.” But here’s the rest of that great quote and what we can take from it to help us prepare for the next time the unimagineable happens.
“Plans Are Worthless”
There’s a popular “apocalypse bingo” meme that has been going around for a while now. It shows a moderator in front of a white board taking bets on what disasters will occur on which months. Throughout 2020, as each new unexpected event emerged, people updated and reshared the meme:
“Okay, who had [insert catastrophe] for [insert month]?”
From murder hornets, to double hurricanes, to Saharan dust clouds, to plague squirrels, the only thing tying all these events together was their incongruity.
In the face of such unpredictability, it might seem that any effort to plan would be a waste of time. After all, it’s a pretty sure bet than anyone interviewing for a job in 2015 failed to correctly answer the question, “where do you see yourself in five years?”
Dwight D. Eisenhower would agree with you about the futility of planning. In fact, on several occasions he said, “Plans are worthless.” But that wasn’t the end of his thought.
It’s Not About the Plan
As the architect and commander of the Allied D-Day Normandy invasion in World War II, Eisenhower knew a thing or two about planning. In a speech he gave in 1957 to a group of military planners, the full quote was:
He goes on to say that when an emergency occurs, the first thing to do is to “take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window and start once more.”
As he told the planners in the room, by definition an emergency is something that is unexpected, therefore any existing plans don’t apply. But he doesn’t mean that all that planning effort went to waste.
He clarifies that when planners do have to respond to an emergency, they will be able to do so intelligently because of the work they have already done. The primary reason for planning is to keep ourselves “steeped in the character of the problem that [we] may one day be called upon to solve.”
Here are three ways to take his advice to heart.
Planning for the Unexpected
Look for critical dependencies. Are there crucial nodes that everything relies on? Is it a single transportation hub, a key worker, one major client, or a unique software application that everybody depends on? How could we respond if we suddenly lost these things?
Think: systems. We can’t anticipate specific causes, but we can look at generalized effects of a disruption and how our systems and teams might be able to respond. What might we do about a major weather event, a cyber-attack, a legal challenge, or client problem? What assets or processes can we have ready to put in place so that our systems can continue to function?
Red Team. Sometimes we can be blind to our own assumptions; the things we take as “given” may not be such sure bets after all. A great way to test them for weaknesses is to appoint one or more people to “Red Team” our operations. Their sole job is to think up ways to disrupt what we are doing; with 2020 behind us, they should have plenty of ideas to begin with.
In looking at our operations in these ways we’ll uncover points of weakness, risks, and vulnerabilities. The planning we do to adjust may not accurately predict the causes, but they can get us a lot farther and faster down the road to finding smart solutions.
Plans are Worthless – The Takeaway
When the emergency happens, there are three things we can be sure of:
- That we were not able to accurately predict what it would be.
- That the exact plans we have won’t work to resolve it.
- But that if we have been planning, we’ll be a giant step ahead on responding to it intelligently.
If we keep ourselves “steeped in the problems” we may face, we’ll have a better chance of solving them, no matter how unexpected.
“Okay, who had abominable snow locusts for January?”