By Wayne Rivers, Family Business Institute
When Dwight Eisenhower was president, he reflected on his military career and said that in his experience "plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Similarly, in my 30+ years, I have been told by many, many contractors that construction is an industry where plans are useless because it’s always in a state of change. If plans are useless, of what value are they to professional soldiers like Eisenhower or professional contractors like you? What did Eisenhower mean with this paradoxical statement?
He meant that even the best plans can't anticipate everything. Emergencies and disruptions are, by definition, things for which you cannot plan. No one in their 2020 business planning foresaw a pandemic which would throw major constraints into how most of us do business. And yet here we are; our carefully laid plans are in disarray to say the least. If Eisenhower was correct and plans are useless, why plan at all? There are at least four compelling reasons why planning works.
- Planning gives you a starting place. I can't even imagine how you would work intelligently in the current disruption without having a previous plan in place. It's much easier to adapt to changing circumstances if you already have a track to run on. No one would decide to drive across the United States from coast to coast without a plan, without a map, and without a planned route. Sure, there might be detours along the way, but you would start with a plan and adapt the plan in little ways as you went along.
- Planning allows you to know how to react in a crisis. I have a friend who once was an aspiring MMA fighter. When I mentioned Eisenhower’s concept to him, he said, "That's absolutely true. You will get popped in the mouth and only through practice and training will you know how to react and what to do in the event of a crisis like that. You can't talk about it, you cannot explain to somebody what it's like to feel the physical pain of a punch, so you must go through it. You have to live it through your training and practice so that your body and brain will know how to react." That makes perfect sense. Whether it's in a fighting ring or in the current business climate, can you imagine adapting to a crisis without a plan? Where would you begin? How would you adjust and adapt? Would every day be just a new series of fire drills? Eisenhower elaborated on his statement: "The details of a plan which was designed years in advance are often incorrect, but the planning process demands the thorough exploration of options and contingencies. The knowledge gained during this probing is crucial to the selection of appropriate actions as future events unfold." That's why you do planning. You gain insight into yourself, your team, your business, and your customers, and you learn how to plan so that when there is an emergency you can easily come together to reformulate and re-calibrate the existing plans.
- Planning provides clarity, vision, and direction for your team. It aligns your people. Simon Sinek says about planning that "it sets the image of the future in the minds of the people on your team, and that's very valuable.” You’ve heard the cliché “singing from the same hymn book," right?
- Most importanlty, planning gives your team practice. Planning means collaborating, thinking together, challenging each other, requiring each other to defend ideas, and so on. It's the process of planning — not the 3-inch-thick binder filled with graphs and charts and diagrams and flow charts; that's not it. What's valuable is the very process of planning, the process of getting the best minds in your company together and working as a team for good times and bad. If you've never practiced planning together as a team, can you imagine how disjointed and ineffective it would be once you finally did? Suppose your favorite college football team walked on the field on opening day without having prior practice? They'd be a mess, and they'd be easy picking for the opposition! Most contractors wouldn’t walk onto a job site or turn a spade full of dirt without a plan in place; isn’t it ironic that the biggest project, the most important project a contractor has, is the overall success and prosperity of the enterprise itself, and they rarely have an overarching plan for the company?
Now is the time when you need planning the most. In times of uncertainty and murkiness, that's when planning pays off. And the good news is that it's never too late to start.