When it came to discussing plans, President Dwight Eisenhower liked to tell a story that he’d heard while a student at Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. As it goes, the maps available to studying officers were of far-flung regions in France, the study of which struck those in charge of planning as a waste of time. To remedy this, the maps were replaced with ones of the surrounding Kansas area, as well as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and other American regions. But after making all kinds of strategic plans out of the geography of Kansas and Pennsylvania, just a few short years later, the United States entered into World War I, joining fierce battles taking place in those very regions of France that had been dismissed as irrelevant.
The idea behind this anecdote, to hear President Eisenhower describe it, was that plans frequently fall by the wayside and our best-intentioned ideas for preparation can become worthless. The story wasn’t told to denigrate those who plan, but to illustrate the importance of sustaining an attitude of consistent preparation for any possible outcome. Stagnation can happen when simply having a plan is the goal. What any organization needs, in military, business, or any other strategic area, is a culture of planning as opposed to a set of plans.
A plan can be a very valuable thing for your business, but it can also hurt you. A wide-ranging and adaptable set of plans can be a guideline to success, while a concrete plan can be thrown into a complete disarray when one or two variables are changed. “Worthless” might be a slight exaggeration, but even the best thought out plans must be changeable in order to be useful. It does today’s company no good to be forced to stick to a plan that was made with yesterday’s knowledge set. The world is constantly changing, now quicker than ever, and the importance of operational flexibility can’t be overstated
In order to be able to respond to any change or emergency (and you can almost guarantee there will be many), you will need a team that is capable of making plans for any possibility. Of course, you can’t account for everything, but what you’re doing is sharpening the ability of you and your employees to take on whatever challenges arise. The plans you create for potential obstacles might not ever end up in use, but their formulation is great practice for developing your responses to whatever does happen.
When you make your plans, the very act of brainstorming responses to emergencies will help you when an unforeseen one pops up. The thinking process that you and your team utilize should be tuned to the task of minimizing problems as they arise, if not eliminating them completely. What an effective plan does is establish a vision, rather than set a list of tasks to be done.
It doesn’t take a Supreme Commander to run an effective planning culture. All you need is the knowledge that while you may wish to prepare for every possible outcome, that’s simply impossible. What is possible is installing and encouraging the mindset that those inevitable challenges that cannot be planned meticulously for can be dealt with ably and aggressively. Eisenhower knew that he couldn’t make a concrete plan for what enemy forces were about to do, but he could run a military that could bend to every new wrinkle with the best possible attitude. If your organization is able to accommodate and overcome a rapidly changing world, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish.