General Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”. No matter how effort we put into a plan, we almost always have to modify it when we execute. Sometimes we have to throw it out entirely. A mentor of mine said it even more simply. “You’ve gotta have a plan before you can deviate from it”. There’s no way to plan for every possible outcome, but effective planning can help you adapt to real-world events. These 5 tips will help you with building rock-solid plans that stand up when reality gets in the way.

In the military, we use the Deliberate planning process to create plans for military operations. The advice I’m going to give you today comes from the Concept Planning phase of this process. There’s a lot more to military planning, so please don’t think this is the whole process. It’s just a taste for you with some nuggets to help you with your planning. I’m not going to go into detail because it’s not important for you to follow this process exactly. This is just some advice that can be pulled from military planning to make your planning a little more robust. Your company probably has a plan format, but including these elements in your plan will make it stronger.

Building Rock-Solid Plans Tip #1 – Analyze the Mission and Situation

This is really just a very formal term for what it is you’re trying to accomplish. We’ve talked about the 5W’s (Who, What, Where, When, Why) in other posts. I didn’t just make those up, it comes from my military planning experience. Be as specific as possible with Who, What, When, Where and Why. This will make it easier for the people executing the plan to understand your expectations. Make sure to include any constraints that your boss or other stakeholders have imposed on the plan. This includes the enemy, the environment and all kinds of other factors. In business, hopefully, you don’t have enemies, but you may want to assess your competition if that’s appropriate. At the very least, this is where you look at all of the outside forces that may influence the outcome of your plan and start to think about how you can mitigate them.

Building Rock-Solid Plans Tip #2 – Define the End State

It’s important to clearly define the outcome you want your plan to achieve. You can think about this in terms of “How will you know when the plan is done?” Try to make this as quantifiable and measurable as possible. In flight testing, we wrote test plans that showed how many data points we needed to complete the test. The plan usually had a minimum number that we absolutely had to hit and then some goals above that if there was still time or money left in the budget. We knew that we could stop after the minimum, as long as we had enough data to make an educated decision about the test.

Building Rock-Solid Plans Tip #3 – Define Your Intent

For any planning effort to be successful we need to communicate our vision of the desired end state. In the military, this is called Commander’s Intent. This translates pretty well to business, although I don’t recommend that you call this commander’s intent. Come up with some other term that gets the idea across to your team. We talked about making that end state as specific as we can. We want to take it one step further by providing a little more info to help our team plan. This is where you want to talk about the priorities for your team to follow, as well as areas you are willing to accept risk.

Building Rock-Solid Plans Tip #4 – Think About Logistics

In the military, this traditionally refers to moving people, equipment, assets etc. That may or may not be appropriate for your project, but it’s always good to map out how people or things are going to get from A to B. Don’t forget to include your data and information flows. A lot of projects get derailed because planners assumed lines of communication were in place that didn’t actually exist. Include how you’re going to develop new information flows or modify existing ones for your plan to succeed.

Building Rock-Solid Plans Tip #5 – Include Branches and Sequels

In military planning, branches and sequels are very specific terms about completely separate plans that start upon a specific set of conditions coming true. I don’t want you to get too wrapped up on the definitions, just apply the concept in your plan. Think about elements in your plan, that if they happen a certain way, might allow other plans to go forward. And it doesn’t have to be positive. There could be a situation where if your plan runs into a wall, that it kicks off an entirely different plan.

The military also has Crisis Action Planning which is basically the same process, but faster. And in the military, we also have a saying,  “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Going back to our Eisenhower quote, your plan may not be perfect and will almost certainly need to be modified once reality hits it, but good planning will help you make those modifications go as smoothly as possible.

Remember, this is not the actual military planning process just some helpful nuggets to make your plans a little more robust. If you want to learn more about military planning, Joint Publication 5-0 is a good place to start. It’s a big document so I recommend starting with these tips and our checklist that you can download first. Then, if you’re looking for more, check out Joint Pub 5-0.

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