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The Difference Between Plan and Planning

By: David Potts, CPA

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Catchy little phrase. I understand it has a military origin. I have heard this phrase used several times recently on television, by news commentators or their “experts” when interviewed, and even by a character in a television show sometime in the last week or two.

I’ve also heard it used in a business context, a reason not to waste time with business planning. However, I don’t think the military’s use of this phrase was ever meant to suggest that planning wasn’t a priority.

If there is ever an organization linked to planning it would have to be our military. And they seem to be very good at it. Consider the logistics of providing an army on the move with food and water. I doubt you will ever hear a commanding officer in our military tell a subordinate not to waste time planning.

Curious to see what I could find about the Army’s planning process, I found a Department of the Army publication titled ADP 5-0: The Operations Process with a simple google search. The preface includes an info graphic that defines the Army’s Operations Process. It states “The Army’s framework for exercising mission command is the operations process – the major mission command activities performed during operation: planning, preparing, executing, and continuously assessing the operation.” It confirmed my expectation. The Army still plans.

This publication defines the verb “plan” as “the art and science of understanding a situation, envisioning a desired future, and laying out effective ways of bringing this future about.” Usually I have difficulty understanding army jargon, but this definition is about a simple as you can ask for. Every business owner who reads or hears this definition should recognize it has a definite place in business life. But my observation is that businesses, more commonly small businesses, don’t devote much time and energy to planning.

When a new business starts up, the owners are excited, motivated, a have a vision for their business. Sometimes their vision lacked an introduction to reality and the business eventually failed. Other startups simply outgrow the owners’ original vision but never change what they are doing, and they just keep doing what they always have done. Some owners like this status for the business and become content with the certainty that the next day will be more of the same. Sometimes the next day isn’t the same as yesterday because technology changed or the economic environment changed and their business suffers. However, the best businesses, ones that grows and increases in value over time still “see” their desired future, but it’s a desired future than changes with time.

If you are old enough to be intimate with time, you know life is never still and uncertainty is as constant. Over a life time you see changes in people’s values and attitudes, technology, treatments for diseases, ups and downs in the economy, the disintegration of governments and the ability of a few egg heads to exclude Pluto from the list of planets orbiting earth. All these changes affect commerce and the economics of businesses (except for maybe the reclassification of Pluto as a planet.)

This constant of change over time makes the future uncertain for many businesses and therefore, to continue to survive and grow, a business must be adaptable and resourceful. This starts with planning, planning that begins with a clear vision of the business’s future, even knowing hindsight will potentially reveal a different future achieved than planned.

Now keep in mind that planning is the initial step in the Operations Process according to the Army’s framework. Preparing, executing, and continuously assessing the operation are just as integral to achieving a desired future. The downfall of many a plan is that leaders fail to continually assess the plan’s progress toward achieving their envisioned future, recognizing and adapting to unanticipated changes that require adjustment to original plan to succeed.

Business people with a bias against taking the time and resources needed to plan the future of their business probably have been involved in unsuccessful planning efforts or were never involved in planning. Plans without adequate preparation, assessment, and execution predictably fail. Keep in mind a plan is a part of a process, not the end of an effort. The Army’s framework for their Operations Process is simple in concept, but there are other parts of the process that, to me, seem integral to its success. Key principles are laid out in the preface of the publication that seem integral to the process. The process is to be guided by the following principles:

• Commanders drive the operations process (businesses can substitute leaders for commanders)

• Apply critical and creative thinking

• Build and maintain situational understanding

• Encourage collaboration and dialogue

It may be true that no plan survives contact with the enemy, but that doesn’t invalidate planning. A desired future must be created by a company’s leaders and participants in the company must understand the company’s vision. A system and mindset must be cultivated to continually assess and monitor the Company’s progress toward its desired future. When change happens, and it will, participants armed with critical and creative thinking skills adjust were necessary to keep their company’s vision alive. This concept works well for the Army. I expect it will work well in your business.

For most businesses, the natural year end is Dec. 31. November and December would be a great time to spend time and effort thinking about the future of your business. Just remember in addition to creating your plan…add prepare, assess, and execute to complete the process.

If you have a bias against planning, keep in mind what President Dwight Eisenhower said regarding the subject: “Plans are useless. Planning is indispensable.”

Eisenhower should be credible. He helped win a war.