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 advising contractors, I have been told by many that plans are useless in construction because it’s always in a state of flux. 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 world pandemic that would throw major constraints into how most of us do business. And yet here we are; our carefully laid plans are in disarray. So if Eisenhower is right and plans are useless, why plan at all?
There are at least four compelling reasons why planning is indispensible.
First, planning gives you a starting place. I can't imagine how one would work intelligently in the current disruption without having had a 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 map, and without a planned route. Sure, there will be detours along the way, but you start with a plan and adapt it as you go along.
Second, planning allows you to know how to react in a crisis. I have a friend who once was an aspiring mixed martial arts 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? Eisenhower elaborated on his statement: "the details of a plan that 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 is 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.
The third advantage of planning is that it 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?
The fourth, and perhaps most important point, is that planning gives your team practice. Planning means collaborating, thinking together, challenging each other, requiring you to defend your ideas. It's the process of planning not the three-inch-thick binder filled with graphs and charts and diagrams and flow charts. What's valuable is the very process of planning, the process of getting the best minds in your company together and planning as a team for good times and bad. If you had 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 competition.
Most contractors wouldn’t walk onto a job site or turn a spade full of dirt without a plan in place, so isn’t it ironic that for the most important project a contractor has, the overall success and prosperity of the company, they rarely have an overarching plan? 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.