For some unknown reason, when you look up “plans” on Wikipedia you only get a short story and four interesting quotes:

  • Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential – Winston Churchill
  • Plans are nothing; planning is everything. – Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. – Helmuth von Moltke the Elder
  • A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week – George S. Patton

Notice anything unusual about the sources of these quotes?  Correct, the authors are all famous for their military expertise.  However, we know that planning and plans are not used exclusively by the military; you and I use them as we go about our daily routine as well as when we are hard at work.  Maybe the history of serious planning can be traced back to early military men.

What do the Churchill and Eisenhower quotes mean?

These quotes are two very similar versions of the same thing and have the same meaning.  However, you want an explanation of the difference between the two words in simple language. How is this; planning is a process and a plan is a document.  Planning is all about thinking:

  • What has to be done?
  • What resources do I need?
  • How do I use the resources I will have?
  • What are all the ways I can achieve my objective?
  • What are the pros and cons or each?
  • What is my final decision about the way forward?

The plan is the documentation of the decision in a way that people who have to implement the plan can be successful. Here are two very different examples of plans:

It is Saturday and you have errands to run and people to pick-up and drop-off.  You write you list ordering all the activities and making shopping lists for each store.  You realize that the only resources you need are the kids, the minivan, and the family credit card.  All this took a few minutes but has major importance for you and your family.  You certainly don’t want to not pick up a kid or forget to pick up the dress at the dry cleaners that your wife expects to wear in the evening.  Because you do this all the time you do not need anyone else to work with and to use as a check and balance for your own opinions.

It is September and time for your business to do its annual update to the Strategic Plan.  You bring the key members of your “inner circle” together to review recent progress and setbacks that will form the basis of the future. The planning process is so important because none of us can be all knowledgeable about ideas, trends, changes, etc., both inside and outside our business which will change the way we do business.  The best chance you have is to tap into the combined knowledge of all your employees but especially your senior team since they have the best overall idea about what you are trying to accomplish.  At this stage, it is frequently useful to engage a consultant since she will have no problems telling truth to power, and will make sure people are being straight with you and not holding back any bad news.

Items to discuss during the planning process include:

  • How do your customers perceive your business? What has changed?
  • How has the business performed against the current plan?
  • What has changed in the competitive arena?  New products, new companies, old competitors fail or get acquired?
  • What has significantly changed in technology that could affect your business?
  • Were there any major changes to your company’s team?
  • Are there any new products that will force you to change the way you do business?

Once this is discussed in detail the highlights of the discussions, including decisions taken about what to do and what not to do, are committed to writing, reviewed, and approved.  The approval process should include people who have not been involved in the planning process and are important to implementing the decisions.  The give and take is an integral part of the process.When the plan is published and shared with all the people who will have to know what will be expected of them going forward it will probably be put into some draw and not viewed again until the next year. Do you care? NO! Really?? Again, consider this quote:

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. – Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

In business, contact with the enemy is a metaphor for being out and about in the commercial marketplace.  Stuff happens and as long as your team understands the intent of your strategy, you have to trust them to adapt to the changing “real world”.

You can thank General Patton for trying to stop “paralysis by analysis”:

A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week– George S. Patton

We know Patton was so action oriented that he became a serious management challenge for Eisenhower because he rubbed the British Generals the wrong way yet he did what he had to when he had to.  Not a bad legacy.

Finally, as an aside, consider the challenge for sole proprietors or heads of small business.  They must build up a network of like-minded people who they trust and are willing to act as Devil’s Advocate in the planning process – we all need fresh input and checks and balances. Finding people like this is difficult and keeping them is even harder, but if you do, you can sleep well at night.