What General George C. Marshall Can Teach Us About Planning

In this blog I have often used the phrase “no plan survives contact with the enemy” – a truism I learned during my military days and use frequently in business meetings. Anyone who has witnessed the moment when a plan meets reality knows immediately what this is all about. God – and the market – laugh at us while we make our plans.

Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images

When I was in college ROTC I won an award that enabled me to attend the Marshall Conference at VMI. It was a series of lectures and discussions about public service, all inspired by and focused on the life of the great soldier and statesman George C. Marshall (shown in the photo above).  I recently re-read David Brook’s excellent book The Road to Character, and in it Brooks uses Marshall as one of his examples of character formation.  As I was reading, I came across this interesting section which shines a light on Marshall, how he addressed the state of Army officer training at the time, and what good preparation for war (and work) might look like.

The lesson plans he inherited were built on the ridiculous premise that in battle, officers would have complete information about their troops’ positions and the enemy’s. He sent them out on maneuvers without maps* or with outdated ones, telling them that in a real war, the maps would be either absent or worse than useless. He told them the crucial issue is usually when a decision should be made as much as what the decision should be. He told them that mediocre solutions undertaken in time were better than perfect solutions undertaken too late. Until Marshall, professors wrote their lectures and simply read them out to the class. Marshall prohibited the practice. He cut the supply systems manual from 120 pages down to 12, to make training a citizen force easier and to allow greater discretion down the chain of command.

* A quick personal story about war and maps: When I was in Kuwait City during Desert Storm, as we entered the city we actually didn’t have any reliable maps of the city streets. Since, as a reservist, I had been a frequent business traveler and thus the recipient of hundreds of car rental-provided city maps, and also since we were near the (largely demolished) Kuwait City Airport, I got to wondering if there were rental car agencies in the Kuwait Airport with maps. So we walked into the deserted terminal, crawled around some rubble, and believe it or not there it was: a Hertz counter with some maps. So I grabbed all of them and that’s what we used for a while until we got some satellite pictures of the city.

But back to Marshall and business lessons:

• Remember that it’s not planning that matters, but the quality of the planning. Ask yourself the hard questions. Remember that we humans are lazy and like to follow the path of least resistance. This tendency is a planning trap. Watch out for it.

• Regarding Marshall’s halt of the professors’ practice of reading from their notes, one way to know that you know your plan is to explain it without aid of powerpoint (or some other crutch). I’ve talked about this before.

• Another defense against some surprise stunning your team into inaction is to ease the reins on your daily management style. Creating a culture of flexibility and empowerment is key. FYI, “empowerment” here includes not raking people over the coals when they make an honest mistake.

No plan survives contact with the enemy. Words to live by.

Good luck!

PS: For any hard-core history buffs out there, no biographer covered Marshall like Forrest C. Pogue.