No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force. – Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke
What should you do when trying to think about dealing with a difficult situation?
Say you’ve been asked to come up with a plan. Something in writing. Something that sets out how you’re going to go about things.
Well, that’s what I had to do recently. So, I started with what seemed like an obvious place.
I took out the textbooks.
That seemed reasonable. Surely, there must be something in there that would help me in the situation I was in right now?
But, something odd happened.
First, the textbooks set out the main possibilities, the main ways you can think about the situation.
For example, let’s say you have a question about organisation structure.
The textbooks will tell you that people in organisations tend to act along a continuum from task oriented to relationship oriented.
Task oriented people want to get things done. They’re interested in todo lists, responsibilities, due dates and specific actions.
Relationship oriented people want to get people working well together. They want to create a culture and shared vision of what is possible.
The books will tell you how organisations develop styles or personalities depending on which approaches are dominant in their leaders – from laid back approaches to micromanagement and time tracking in 6-minute increments.
You can also describe organisations in terms of how they are structured – from strict hierarchies and siloed operations to a loose network of independent professionals.
But here’s the thing.
All those descriptions of organisations are actually very little use.
They describe what is there but don’t tell you what is good or what you should use.
Is being task oriented better than being relationship oriented? Or is it the other way around?
The answer is that it depends. In some cases, one approach will work. In other cases it won’t.
It’s actually very hard to predict how things will pan out.
Take war-making, for example. The German battle plans of the second world war called for sending troops quickly to France through Belgium.
So quickly that any resisting forces would be overwhelmed and the war would be over very quickly.
Ironically, as a Prussian General observed, plans tend to fall apart once the fighting starts.
Which makes one wonder whether looking to a textbook for thoughts on what to do is akin to a military planner working out how to fight the last war.
The next war is probably going to be different with a whole bunch of things that just weren’t around for the textbook writers to write down.
What if thinking about organisations and their structure is actually irrelevant in a world where either everything is going to be done by a computer or by networks of creative professionals who come together and separate as and when needed.
To some extent the fact is that the more you try and control the more likely it is that you’ll fail.
Or get nothing done.
What you’ve got to do first is be ready, and then, be ready to adapt.
A plan then is more about getting in position than about doing something in a particular way.
As Woody Allen said, eighty percent of success is just showing up.