The Plan is Nothing!

War Room

I believe it was General Eisenhower who once said: “The Plan is Nothing, Planning is Everything”. What he meant by that, I believe, is that in any worthy and complex endeavour such as war, business or major projects, you must plan your activities regularly in order to reflect the continually changing realities around you.

For over 25 years I have worked with companies to produce project plans, programme plans, operational plans, business plans and most recently, we have begun to distinguish between business plans and what is referred to now as “Corporate Plans”. I have always been fascinated by the planning process and found it invigorating and exciting. However, I am amazed by the phobia many managers, executives and business leaders have towards plans and planning. These are strong people with powers and capabilities to make major decisions on the spot but when you say the magic words “Business Plan” they turn into timid, nervous creatures who will do anything to avoid the process. Occasionally, they go on the offensive with accusations such as: “this is theoretical nonsense, everyone knows what needs to be done, we have managed for years without this airy fairy stuff”.

The truth of the matter is simple but multi layered; the reasons could be one or more of the following:

  1. They do not have the techniques or know-how to put together a plan
  2. They are nervous about committing to actual promises in case they don’t come true
  3. They are satisfied with budget projections (more about this in a moment)
  4. They think planning should be done by some MBA person who can produce colourful pie charts and graphs using meaningless flowery words
  5. They don’t see the logic in producing say a 3-year business plan and then be expected to do it all over again in 12 months
  6. They don’t know what to do with the plan once it is produced, other than to have a nice bound copy on the shelf nestling between last year’s annual report and the latest book by another management guru

As for budgets, which are universally accepted as the things we must do every year, where we look at annual budgets in comparisons to previous years, showing cash-flow projections, growth in revenue, profit, assets, return on equity, return on capital etc. However, what I don’t understand is this: how can a company consider a bunch of numbers without a well thought out narrative of a business plan to justify, to explain and to set in context?

So, what to do? Education needs to start from the top. The Board of Directors must assume responsibility for establishing long-term corporate strategies and demand from the executive well articulated and set out rolling business plans that clearly demonstrate the initiatives, projects and business activities to be undertaken over a period of say 3 to 5 years which will go a significant way towards realising those strategies. Thereafter, the quarterly board meetings must have a specific standing agenda item that discusses progress against the approved business plans. This approach will then, out of necessity, begin to cascade down the organisation all the way to individual project plans and even weekly action lists.

But there is something else that is needed here. planning should be real and fun. It should not be encumbered with mysticism and complexity, nor should it be led by theoreticians and patricians who speak down to the rest of the organisation in a didactic manner. Further, there must be an acceptance that planning is an activity that can be accomplished in many different ways and techniques and an organisation must adopt a specific method that works for them rather than a prescriptive method imposed by someone from outside who has little or no appreciation of the company culture.

Going back to General Eisenhower’s quote: “The Plan is Nothing, Planning is Everything”; we must not be wedded to the actual “plan” itself and accept that by definition, the plan will have to change as implementation begins so, the actual skill of “planning” is in itself a very valuable and critical skill to acquire and hone.

Finally, I sneaked in the word “fun” in the last paragraph. I know many people cannot imagine how such a word would fit into this serious topic. Fun and serious are not mutually exclusive concepts. There is no reason why planning could not be done with serious intent but with a relaxed, informal and out of “office environment” situation. Brainstorming, blue skying, workshopping can be done as effectively wearing jeans or when booted and suited. The overall atmosphere can be relaxed, in a non-meeting room setting with all participants contributing on equal footing without imposing the everyday hierarchical constraints. Some group activity exercises can be employed to relax everyone and get the creative juices flowing. One of the most impressive business plans I have ever been involved in was drafted in a hotel garden with seemingly many distractions of passers by, waiters, distant street noises, even squeals of children in a swimming pool near by.

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