A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week. – George S. Patton
George Patton was a master at leading armies into battle and emerging victorious. He invested a significant amount of time and energy over a period of years in researching, experimenting, and refining his understanding of men and tanks in combat. He understood the value of planning, and he always sought to anticipate the enemy’s reaction to his moves.
As the quote above indicates, Patton also understood that to delay too long – waiting for perfect information – could cost battles and lives. He put effort into planning, but he was fully prepared to take action when the timing dictated that he should. And he didn’t always end up working the plan that he thought that he would at the outset.
A common quote in business is, “Plan the work, and work the plan.” As Patton understood and as many software projects have repeatedly proven,the problem is that all too often, plans don’t work out as we expect.
The military expends plenty of time and effort in the planning process. When it comes to execution, however, the military has uncovered some basic truths about the planning process that are invaluable with respect to business, particularly as the complexity of business continues to increase.
As Colonel Tom Kolditz noted in the book Made to Stick, “You might start off trying to fight your plan, but the enemy gets a vote. Unpredictable things happen.”
No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. – Helmuth von Moltke
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t plan. To the contrary, the act of planning forces people to think through the issues, to consider what could go wrong (risks) and to consider contingencies. And most importantly, if you are going to lead your army (or division, unit, squad, whatever the case may be), you need to have a direction.
Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential. – Winston Churchill
Plans are nothing; planning is everything. – Dwight D. Eisenhower
Planning is a discipline that helps you to think about the terrain, check your compass, and to start out in the right direction. You will likely need to make adjustments once you are on your way, but at least you will be able to make informed decisions about those adjustments.
General Patton understood this; he was continually on the move during a battle, assessing where things could/would go wrong and helping to make corrections. He had an uncanny knack of anticipating where the bottlenecks would emerge and arrived on the scene to help keep things moving.
Patton, through his constant study and experience, developed a keen insight into the art of war that enabled him to not only plan well, but gave him the ability to anticipate problems and make those fast, critical adjustments that were necessary to win a battle.
Like war, business these days is continuing to change at ever-increasing rates, and it is growing in complexity. And with the economy in uncertain territory along with this, we all could use a better map and a good compass.
A fool with a plan can beat a genius with no plan. – T. Boone Pickens
And as Patton understood, waiting for perfect information can be costly. By the time you have perfect information the opportunity will have likely passed. So how does an organization deal with greater complexity and rapidly changing conditions using imperfect information?
Through something called Commander’s Intent.
Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, gives the following definition of Commander’s Intent:
A concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the desired end state. It may also include the commander's assessment of the adversary commander's intent and an assessment of where and how much risk is acceptable during the operation.
The Commander’s Intent is a statement written in plain English, and easily remembered. It can’t afford to be long, nor can it attempt to anticipate every possible scenario. If the Commander’s Intent is too detailed, it runs the risk of quickly becoming obsolete.
At higher levels, the Commander’s Intent is more abstract than it is at the lower levels. The objective, however, remains the same. “You can lose the ability to execute the original plan," Colonel Tom Kolditz says, "but you never lose the responsibility of executing the intent.”
It all boils down to this: The plan isn’t the strategy, the intent is the strategy. Tactics – the plan – help you get there. During the execution phase, you will most likely need to change your tactics to adapt to changing circumstances.
Don’t plan on working the plan… as you initially laid it out. But be sure to communicate your intent, set the boundaries, and let your staff take responsibility for executing the spirit and intent. And be there to help navigate through obstacles. Proper execution of strategy requires leadership throughout the process.