We’re in the thick of planning season again, and at times like this it's helpful to remember something else Eisenhower said back in 1950, “Plans are worthless, but planning is essential.” That sounds paradoxical on the surface, but it’s a generalization of a line from von Moltke the Elder’s On Strategy, “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.” And given Eisenhower’s background, that’s not an unsuprising source.
Thinking about it from that context, it’s not that paradoxical. It’s not that plans, in and of themselves, are worthless. It’s that plans make all sorts of assumptions about how the thing you’re making plans about are going to respond to the plan. And like any other assumption, reality is often very different.
So we know that long term plans are going to be problematic. But that doesn’t mean that planning (or even building the plan) is wasted. To build a good plan you need a deep understanding of the situation. You need to understand the drivers, the constraints, and the goals. Not just what they are, but the relative priorities inside and across those groups. Which means that the output of the planning process is not just the plan itself, but also a shared understanding of the problem and solution space.
It’s that shared understanding that really provides the long term value. You start with the plan and the first step in the plan. Then, as reality diverges more and more from the plan, the entire team can work together, with that shared understanding of the solution space, towards a solution to the problem the team set out to solve.
Not necessarily the solution as envisioned in the original plan. Reality has provided direct and imperative feedback on the situation. The team needs take that into consideration and update the plan, and the end goal, accordingly.
Because plans are worthless, but planning is essential to solving the customer problem you set out to solve.