Combined Arms Consulting

Planning - stage one for success


Published: 17 Feb 2024

6 min read

Planning - stage one for success

“Every battle is won before it is fought” Sun Tzu. “No plan survives contact with the enemy” Helmuth von Moltke. When you look at these two quotes, they seem to be contradictory yet are often cited in any discussion about the nature of planning. How can planning be an essential element in determining success on one hand yet on the other the planning model itself fails in the cauldron of conflict? My challenge was to reconcile this.

I spent quite a few waking hours considering this equation, otherwise this blog might end here. The odd coffee did not help, but walking around the garden did, it cleared my mind and things started to fall into place. Then I dawned on me, that the explanation was hiding in plain sight, what I was doing was the Rosetta stone, it was not the plan that was the essential ingredient, it was the planning process that mattered.

Channeling General Eisenhower, the overall commander of the Normandy invasion, an endeavor that took 2 ½ years to plan, I will defer to his wisdom when he stated that plans mean nothing planning is everything.

The question now posed is “What are the essential ingredients of a planning process, and how can they be recognized and adapted to the modern leadership role”.

I now understood that my focus was solely on the outcome, how many words, whether it was written in a way people would find readable, and how much information I could fit in. These are all important attributes of a plan, but the foundation of any plan is the importance of deep thought and reflection before any words are written.

Considering this I settled on two attributes that I felt offer the best foundation for a successful planning endeavor.

The first attribute is clear enough – what is the plan's purpose? What is its objective and will the plan fit in with the overall strategy and objectives of the corporation? Linked to this is to what extent will the plans embrace the various needs and aspirations of all the elements of the business and how have these elements been allowed to influence the planning process itself?

This connection within the organization is essential to ensure that everyone will be committed to the plan, because without this base commitment the probability of a successful execution of the plan will be compromised.

Aligned to this is the importance of integrating the non-business attributes of the corporate ecosystem, a fancy way of saying, people. Plans must understand and integrate interpersonal and human factors into the equation.

Steven Covey (7 habits of Highly Effective People) and Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) explored the human factor in life, and I contend that business relations is part of life, not separate from it. Not considering the very people’s needs who work for you and will carry out the plan is in my view a recipe for disaster. All one must look at today is the desire of many workers to work from home for a variety of reasons post the pandemic as an example of the need to create an empathetic planning process.

The second attribute is often understood but, in my experience, rarely defined, and that is the need to clearly articulate a set of definitions, and the delineation of the core assumptions and biases that we all have when going into any venture or activity.

We must constantly question ourselves and challenge what we are doing, at the formative stages of any planning process, as this hard [self-reflective] review will save us time and ideally forewarn us about possible challenges that we may face as we move forward.

Robert McNamara the United States Secretary of Defense (1961 to 1968) understood this when he reviewed his nation's planning and execution of the Vietnamese War. He noted 11 key lessons that needed to be learned to ensure that any plans have a sound foundation for success:

  • Keep perspective.
  • Acknowledge your own unconscious biases.
  • Appreciate stakeholders’ motivations.
  • Be informed before action.
  • Remember the human factor always.
  • Be transparent.
  • Constant review of assumptions and that plans are fluid.
  • Seek alternative opinions.
  • Seek support.
  • Realize that we will never have all the “facts”.
  • Mitigate silos and keep all aspects of the enterprise informed.

These are important lessons that can be applied to the 21st-century planning space.

However, one must remember that in the planning process no matter how impressive the inputs are, how detailed and considered the data is, and how well presented and adroit the narrative may be, you, at the end of the day need a slice of luck.

Luck is the unknown factor that if we could only bottle, we could all retire. Luck might simply be that you get the assumptions right or that there were no unforeseen nasties that popped up. Luck might mean that the key stakeholders remained committed, and the environmental factors did not change.

I do not believe you make your luck, because you can prepare as much as you like but there will always be factors you cannot control. However, having stated this there is one factor you can control in respect to “luck”, and that is how you react to an unexpected or unconsidered event. That controlling factor is to remain agile and learn from mistakes and miscalculations as you move forward.

Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline understood this and by creating an agile and flexible mindset, leaders can create a flexible and learning-orientated corporate culture that can manage the unforeseen. This can be a challenge as we can become wedded to our worldview and what has worked in the past, but “facts do not care about feelings” and as leaders, we must allow ourselves to be adaptable as our teams will be looking towards us for direction.

My final thought, the plan is not the end of the journey, and in some ways, it is not even an important step within the journey, but it is the process by which you created that plan that will buttress the goals and aspirations of organizations as you move forward.