If my headline looks familiar, it should. I have plagiarized Dwight Eisenhower, although he was in turn plagiarizing some unknown Army veteran of his youth. The comment was a central theme of his remarks to the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference in 1957.
In his speech, Ike shared the story of pre-WW1 Army planning exercises using maps of France. A group of participants objected based on the apparent absurdity of the US Army ever going to battle in France. The maps were accordingly changed to US locations. He went on to say,
Only about two years after that happened, we were fighting in Alsace-Lorraine and in the Champagne. I tell this story to illustrate the truth of the statement I heard long ago in the Army: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.
Strategic planning in business is not built on the expectation of an emergency, but it is built on the reality of constant change. Every plan makes assumptions. As soon as the ink is dry, the assumptions transform into reality and some, if not most of them, will be wrong. A less pithy but equally relevant excerpt from the speech is: “it is not going to happen the way you are planning.”
The word “plan” is both a noun and a verb. If you think of your strategic plan as the former, you’re probably doing it wrong. The best strategic plans are adaptive, and the best execution involves a process of continuous senior management monitoring and adjustment as the plan assumptions unfold in real life.