Plans Are Worthless; Planning Is Everything

by Stephen T. Messenger

April 20, 2021

COVID scrapped our plans again.  We spent over two months planning an exciting, week-long, COVID compliant, offsite for our leadership team.  Between reinforcing our strategic narrative, sharing best practices, conducting one-on-one counseling, hosting a competitive event and team building, and providing ample down time, this event was destined to be a success!  Then COVID struck. 

Immediately following the evening social on the first day, an employee learned his wife tested positive for COVID.  He subsequently tested positive the next day.  All our plans came to a screeching halt.  Every event over the next 72 hours was predicated on personal interaction—if not, why even have an offsite?  Our plans were now worthless.  Yet our deliberate planning saved the day.

President Dwight Eisenhower once stated the Army taught him “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”  He continued by explaining that in an emergency, the first thing “to do is to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window.  But if you haven’t been planning, you can’t start to work, intelligently at least.”  Those last three words say it all.

Too many leaders tie themselves to the plan, but the plan is only a vehicle to get to a desired end state by a certain time.  There are many roads to get there; your plan is just one of them.    

I’m a planner at heart.  I love to have timelines and schedules; to start on time and end on time; to let everyone know what the plan is; and to allow them to know with predictability what their day will look like.  Unfortunately, no plan survives first contact.  All planners are able to build and issue a plan.  The best ones can also:

Account for possible disruptions.  What is the most likely disruption that’s going to happen?  In our case—it being 2021—COVID will rear its ugly head.  In the planning process, you need to have already thought about the top two or three things that could go wrong.  A simple example is a considering the possibility of a flat tire while travelling and what could happen next.

Have a backup.  No one likes to build a plan that won’t be used.  Nonetheless, have a branch plan that allows a team to quickly shift from encountering a disruption to maintaining success.  You may never have to use the plan, but at least it’s there.  Backup planning is the spare tire or roadside assistance for your event. 

Bring Contingency Resources.  Backup planning is good; resourcing it is essential.  When things go awry, planners who have thought through different possibilities and backups still need to have those resources on hand.  It’s the difference between only having a flat spare versus one that’s full of air… with a jack… and a lug wrench.  Don’t let a contingency fail by forgetting the little things.

Know the Intent.  Planners keep their eyes on the prize.  The boss should have laid out clear intent for the event.  Focus contingency planning on how to achieve the “what” and the “why,” using a different “how.”  As long as you meet intent, your planning is successful.  In our flat tire example, if the intent is to be on time for a meeting, call an Uber.  If the intent is to have a fun, family vacation, make a memory with the kids changing a tire on the side of the road.

In our case, the team conducted a good site reconnaissance of the event and knew of many local resources.  We conducted COVID testing at a known site, provided a 40-hour buffer period to get test results, shifted to a temporary virtual platform where we could, held limited in-person contact with protections, and resumed COVID-friendly operations on the fourth day.  We still met the intent and kept our people safe.

Winston Churchill said, “the best generals are those who arrive at the results of planning without being tied to plans.”  The planning process is the critical piece of a successful event.  A plan will form out of it, but the most capable leaders have thought ahead and are flexible and agile enough to shift when needed. 

2 thoughts on “Plans Are Worthless; Planning Is Everything

  1. Hey! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my previous room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this write-up to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!


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