Military Strategy and Business Planning

“No plan survives contact with the enemy” is a phrase I’ve often heard used in a business context as an excuse for not planning properly -or indeed, at all. This last case is especially true on some agile projects I’ve turned-around, where those on the project initially proceeded without any initial planning at all.

The source of the quotation is from Helmuth von Moltke, the nineteenth-century German general and strategist and who proposed that military action was based on a series of options, of which only the start could be planned in detail in advance. A more accurate translation of his words is:

“No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength”

which is often misquoted as “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. It’s the accurate translation that makes more sense. It suggests that while detailed planning for the start of an initiative is valuable, it isn’t worth planning the whole initiative in detail at the start.  However, by keeping the top-level end-goal in mind (winning the battle, or delivering the benefits of the project),  keep low-level planning flexible to reach the end-goal. So low-level planning is seen as a regular, ongoing sift of options through the project; selecting the best option to implement with the most appropriate toolset at the time. The interesting implication here is that an option or toolset chosen at one part of the project may not be the most appropriate for later part.

Of course, these observations are not new when translated into business terms. Project management methods have the concept of dividing a project into stages, each stage having its own objectives; top-level planning occurs at the start of the project and reviewed periodically throughout, while low-level planning of the following stage is performed toward the end of current stage.

However, I’ve found sometimes that some managers try to plan in detail for the whole project before the start. This usually turns out to be as unsuccessful as those agile practitioners I mentioned earlier who fail to plan at all. The accurate translation of von Moltke’s words reminds us of the importance of timely, flexible, detailed planning in the pursuit of the end-goal.