No Plan Survives Being Misquoted

Eric Lawler

August 20, 2019

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While researching my next blog post, on the subject of hiringWorking title: “Eric’s unofficial guide to finding humans to meet your business’s needs–and whom you want to work with–out of a pool of billions.”, I wrote on my outline a point along the lines of “have a plan.” Reading that immediately conjured three different acquaintances who began a mental harangue: I have the audacity to advocate creating a plan, when everyone knows “A plan doesn’t survive first contact with the enemy?” What kind of Pollyanna am I?

Which led me down a good ol’ fashioned research hole! Who said that quote? And why? Mike Tyson is obviously not the original author… Right?

Moltke the Elder

Right! It’s attributed to a Prussian field marshal, MoltkeFull name: Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke. We now call him “Moltke the Elder” as his nephew went on to command German forces in World War I. Sidenote’s sidenote: “Graf” means count, auf Deutsch. Back in the day, you gained the title as part of your name. The more you know, right?, who popularized the notion. Moltke was one of the first to concoct modern theories of war, with this elegant quote from 1871, part of his many letters and essays on the subject:

The material and moral consequences of every major battle are so far-reaching that they usually bring about a completely altered situation, a new basis for the adoption of new measures. One cannot be at all sure that any operational plan will survive the first encounter with the main body of the enemy. Only a layman could suppose that the development of a campaign represents the strict application of a prior concept that has been worked out in every detail and followed through to the very end.

Certainly the commander in chief will keep his great objective continuously in mind, undisturbed by the vicissitudes of events. But the path on which he hopes to reach it can never be firmly established in advance. Throughout the campaign he must make a series of decisions on the basis of situations that cannot be foreseen. The successive acts of war are thus not premeditated designs, but on the contrary are spontaneous acts guided by military measures. Everything depends on penetrating the uncertainty of veiled situations to evaluate the facts, to clarify the unknown, to make decisions rapidly, and then to carry them out with strength and constancy.

Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, ed. Daniel J. Hughes

Hmmm… I guess “One cannot be at all sure that any operational plan will survive the first encounter with the main body of the enemy” doesn’t flow quite as nicely as “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” But our abridged version takes out the rich context of that statement. How many of us create a plan, replete with an objective, and find themselves “undisturbed by the vicissitudes of events?” Note to self: Use vicissitudes in conversation more. This is surely the point of books such as The Goal and concepts such as Andy Grove’s OKRs.

Make plans great again

But even better than that is US Army general and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s explanation for why plans are important. In a speech, he said this:

I tell this story to illustrate the truth of the statement I heard long ago in the Army: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of "emergency" is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.

Dwight D. Eisnhower, Remarks at the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference, November 14, 1957

He posits that emergencies are, by definition, something you haven’t planned for. So if we plan for certain events, they cease to be emergencies. Hmm… Yeah, still not as catchy as “everyone knows the real world eats plans for breakfast.”

The Bible, too, has much to say about plans. While most of its writings on plans concern the hilarious gulf between the plans of finite men and the power of an omnipotent God, this verse from the collections of proverbs stands out:

The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.

Proverbs 21:5

So what about you? Is planning wasteful, or does the act of planning do something to transform how we think about situations, giving us more success, even when things inevitably deviate from the plan?

PS: ‘cause I still believe in miracles, I swear I’ve seen a few / And the time will surely come when you can see my point of view / I believe in second chances and that’s why I believe in you. All hail Keiichi Suzuki. 🙇 I’m looking for my next software engineering role. Drop me a line and let’s talk soon.

Finalized at 1:12 PM.

Tagged with errata.