Planning Succeeds

Plans are not static; they evolve to match circumstances.  Plans add meaning.

Helmuth_Karl_Bernhard_von_MoltkeField Marshall Helmuth von Moltke The Elder,  is person who seemed to have the idea fully developed nearly 150 years ago.  As most senior military people do, he understood planning.

Development of strategy is the necessary first step in planning.  Strategy is the vision and comes before tactics.  Tactics are the selected set of methods that one intends to use to achieve the vision.  Execution or implementation follows and depends greatly on logistical skill.  Finally there is review and the recording of knowledge that results from what has been observed.

Every good plan include all of those pieces.

How did von Moltke address it?

Strategy is a system of expedients; it is more than a mere scholarly discipline. It is the translation of knowledge to practical life, the improvement of the original leading thought in accordance with continually changing situations.

Expedient as defined by Merriam-Webster

1 :  suitable for achieving a particular end in a given circumstance
2 :  characterized by concern with what is opportune

Von Moltke believed in planning.  “The translation of knowledge to practical life.”   Use what you know and can find out to create a new situation.  Notice that it evolves.  “Continually changing”

But Von Moltke knew that planning added value but plans, by themselves, did not.

No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.

In our everyday terms, no plan survives contact with the future.  We plan to achieve certain things but cannot know what lies over the time horizon.  Our plans then must necessarily include the ability to change.

The world seldom conspires to your success so plans guarantee nothing. Your plan and observation of its success, forms the basis for new vision, new tactics and new implementation.  Change the tactics.  Change the vision.  Change the timing.  Execute better next time.  Or, ideally, congratulate yourself for success and continue as before.

Dwight Eisenhower on why plans don’t work as expected.

I tell this story to illustrate the truth of the statement I heard long ago in the Army: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.  There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.

Versatility is rewarded.

Plans are the conjunction of strategy and tactics.  Those that work have certain characteristics.  There is a  vision. There are well chosen tactics.  There is able execution.  There is recording of results and review of those results.

Von Moltke again:

The tactical result of an engagement forms the base for new strategic decisions because victory or defeat in a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human acumen is able to see beyond the first battle.

In our lives, the results are not so easily nor as quickly seen.  The point remains though that future strategic decisions must include the hard won knowledge derived from previous outcomes.

Plans are the template that we use to compare expectations with outcomes.  There is always something to learn from a variance, but with no plan, exceptions go unnoticed and the knowledge is lost.

A plan is not the target, it is the beginning of a process.   Develop a strategy or vision.  Find the possible methods and select those that most closely match the strategy.  Implement with appropriate logistical support.  Review and revise. Begin again.

It has always been so.


Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

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