Plans Are Nothing... Planning Is Everything

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The title of this post is a famous quote from General, US President, and President of my alma mater Columbia University, Dwight D. "Ike" Eisenhower, who was emphasizing the well-known dictum that "no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy," normally attributed to "Helmuth von Moltke the Elder."

Eisenhower was layering an important corollary to Moltke's statement. True, the moment the battle starts, so many unpredictable things happen that the plan goes out the window; nonetheless, the planning process itself is important.

  • Creating plans (plural), includes alternatives. Having options helps one deal with the unforeseen and move between plans or even merge them together.
  • Creating plans aligns the many people involved, essentially getting them used to working together.
  • Creating plans requires thinking:  desired outcomes, behaviours, actions, reactions, possibilities. It cannot prevent the unforeseen, but it can reduce the number of unplanned scenarios and help deal with them.

Planning also has one more crucial benefit:

  • Planning allows a leader to see how good his people are. It is never a replacement for real battle, but it helps winnow out the weak ones.

In short, plans are nothing, because you are almost guaranteed your plan will not work the way you foresee, but planning is everything, because it helps you get the best team focused to prepare for, work together and deal with the inevitable unknowns.

An article by Josh Miller, founder of Branch, asked seed funders and investors to "Stop Backing Visionaries." Miller's core argument is that, since, to paraphrase Moltke and almost quote Steve Blank, "no business plan survives first contact with the market," the vision is not really what matters. That vision, that "plan", is not what will succeed. After all, Facebook started as Facemash, Page and Brin tried to sell their algorithm, Twitter was an offshoot of Odeo, etc. The vision, therefore, is irrelevant, so don't back it. While Miller does give some credit to the reality that you cannot take a bunch of smart people and tell them, "go play until something works," he is almost dismissive of it.

I think Miller gets Moltke's point, but misses Eisenhower's key conclusion: "planning is everything." Investors (and co-founders, and employees) back visionaries not because of the vision itself, but because they are backing the people able to define, plan around and execute for a vision, even and especially when it eventually is wrong. When an investor says, "we back the team," they really mean, "we believe that whatever happens, this team has shown us that they can build a vision around what they learn and execute on that vision." As much as Steve Blank's Customer Development methodology is built around learning, every step has its own internally consistent business model canvas around which you validate and are prepared to execute.

For every new market, new product or new company, you must have a coherent vision, with a strategy to get there and a plan to execute.