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How Planning Kills Your Strategy

Vladimir Oane
Nov 7, 2016 · 6 min read

In 1905 Europe was divided between the Triple Entente (France, Britain and Russia) on one side and the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria and Italy) on the other. It was not a position Germany was comfortable with. The Germans had imperial ambitions, but they felt that they were left out of the colonial expansion phase because of their continental position. A constant state of paranoia made them pursue the development of a plan to fight win a war against the 3 Entente powers. General Count Alfred von Schlieffen devised the plan, which infamously carries his name.

I was always fascinated by the Schlieffen Plan. On a purely intellectual basis it was marvelous. But the reality of it caused Germany’s defeat in WWI. From it one sees a core strategy lesson: never confuse planning with strategy. A lesson ignored by almost all companies I looked at.

What was the Schlieffen plan?

Schlieffen believed that the most decisive region for any future war in Europe would be in the western sector. Here, Schlieffen identified France as Germany’s most dangerous opponent. Russia, Germany’s other enemy, was not as advanced as France. Furthermore, Schlieffen believed that Russia would take at least six weeks to mobilize its forces. Any fighting on the Russian-German border could be dealt with by the Germans, for a few weeks at the very least, while the bulk of their forces concentrated on defeating France. The swift defeat of France would also keep Britain from entering the war and would allow the Germans to move their troops on the Russian border where they believed their technological superiority would allow them to force the Tsar into agreeing on a peace treaty.

In order to get into France, Schlieffen proposed that the German army invade through Belgium and Luxembourg. Both were weak countries, and Germany could roll over them in days. Or so it was believed.

The war began in 1914 — almost 10 years after the development of the plan — and the Germans provided the world a lesson in the value of preparation. As all Germany’s enemy combatants were confused and were operating on instinct, while, on the other hand, the Germans were executing everything so well that world leaders were struck by a moment of pause.

Nevertheless, Germany lost and I blame it on their profound love with their masterful plan. They kept the plan even though it soon became clear that reality was not collaborating. For example:

  • Belgium didn’t fall as soon as the German leadership expected. Furthermore, Belgium’s territorial integrity was guaranteed by Britain and Britain declared war soon after the invasion.
  • The Russians mobilized faster than anyone predicted
  • Personal agendas of the German Army generals made it so they got creative with the implementation of the plan, and thus undermined it

Disasters like these although on a smaller scale happen in the corporate world quite often. I see them all the time.

Never, never confuse planning with strategy

The German didn’t learn their lesson after WW1. They repeated their mistake during WW2 as well. This shows that you must avoid an over-reliance on planning at all costs. Planning is not strategy. But, after years of business “training” and “common sense” these two words became interchangeable in the business world. Or, worse, they became known as the cringe worthy combination called “strategic planning”. In 100% of the cases this is really nothing more than presenting a yearly budget with a pompous narrative. More on this later.

Strategic planning = budget with a pompous narrative.

Strategy follows a pretty well-defined process. It starts with an honest diagnosis of the field of play.

The diagnosis phase should provide a good understanding of the battlefield and the actors involved. (For a business, the diagnostic phase was best theorized by Michael Porter as the interaction of five forces). We can say that Schlieffen got the diagnosis pretty much right. He identified all the major combatants, together with their strengths and weaknesses. His insight to use the German industrial strength to amplify its power can be argued to have been the correct as well.

Importantly, what a good strategy should offer next is not a plan but a set of crystal-clear guiding policies. The distinction can be easily overlooked but it is a fundamental one. A plan represents a sequence of predefined actions, while a set of guiding policies offers a decision making algorithm to help the lieutenants make independent decision that are in accord with the identified strengths of the organization. Plans are the definition of rigidity, policies are agile.

“Develop a stronger car body” is a task in a plan for a new car that the engineering team can execute. Success is judged based on the completion of the task in the allocated timeframe and budget. But given a policy that “We will prioritize speed over safety for our adrenaline-infused clients” the task above may not make a lot of sense. Guiding Policies help the executive team deal with the challenge rather than giving clear tasks that need to be completed.

Good policies have 3 main characteristics:

- They are unambiguous. For example, having a policy to create “killer user experiences” would not provide any guidance in the absence of a definition for the “killer experience”.

-They denote a clear choice. Good strategy means saying NO to a lot of potentially good options, and policies exist to make sure everyone understands it. However, in most instances, plans are a smokescreen for the lack of any decision making.

-They aid decision making. Good policies are actionable while also retaining the freedom of implementation to the people on the field.

Policies are not plans.

But what is the problem with planning, anyway?

Focuses the attention on the wrong things

With planning the focus shifts from progress towards the objective to executing the plan, changing the work from external to internal. Strategy comes with unambiguous objectives, with clear (and sometimes hard) decisions and with policies to amplify the strengths of an organization. Furthermore, most of these elements require condor, involve hard-fought debates and lead to decisions that some people will not be comfortable with.

It’s much easier to conflate strategic thinking with bureaucracy. To exchange clear decision-making with the creation of lists with top priorities (the said list coming from democratic consensus, of course). One should definitely not focus departmental goals derived from budget constraints, but to create policies aimed at amplifying the strengths of the organization.

Once the plan has been decided, usually during yearly kickoff sessions, all energy shifts to executing that plan. That’s what happened with the German forces in WW1. Early signs showed that the plan would not work but that was not important. It took the Germans two years to finally abandon the plan … Some say it was two years too late.

False sense of security

It’s the outcome of the plan that you should hate the most. I certainly do. A plan, especially a well-thought out plan like Germany’s Schlieffen Plan, give people in the field a false sense of security. “Very smart people worked at this”. “Everything was considered”. “The plan is flawless”. But this self-assurance is nothing but make-believe. There is no flawless plan, no matter who made it and how many factors were analyzed beforehand.

Plans are rigid and rigidity is deathly

Plans have to be followed. Following a well defined plan, no matter how good, restricts the options of the “soldiers” implementing the plan. And agility is a huge contributing factor to the success of an enterprise. It is what distinguished people like Genghis Khan or Hannibal from other military leaders. It is what Bezos does at Amazon and what Zuckerberg is doing at Facebook: giving people the flexibility to pursue a rigid objective.

Strategy, not plans!

Whenever you find yourself locked into a plan pause and ask yourself if you are marching towards disaster.

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