Plans Are Useless, Planning is Indispensable

Before heading out to the racecourse, the boat’s standing rigging is adjusted for best performance under the expected wind and wave conditions. The shrouds, lines that hold the mast from falling over to either side, and the headstay, the line that holds the mast from falling backwards, are tightened down if the winds are expected to be strong. The shrouds and headstay are loosened if the winds are expected to be light. Once the boat leaves the dock, the Racing Rules of Sailing forbid further adjustment of the standing rigging, with few exceptions. If actual conditions are different from planned conditions, adjustments will have to be made to other systems to compensate.

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969),
U.S. general, Republican politician, President

The race strategy is also pre-planned, but only in broad stroke. Changing wind and wave conditions and one’s competitor’s position and tactics all require the planned strategy to be fine-tuned throughout the race, or scrapped completely and replaced with a new strategy on the fly.

If the sailboat is stopped while a new strategy is being developed, the race is already lost.

The same can be said for business plans. It is not possible to pre-plan for every market condition, competitor tactic or customer demand. The business leader has to be able to fine-tune the company’s strategy while keeping the business moving forward.

Some parts of your strategy can be changed more easily than others. For example, once you quote a price to a particular customer, it is hard to raise your price. Prices are more easily lowered than raised. If you’ve initially quoted too low a price, you may have to adjust the terms, delivery times or warranty period to compensate.

Of course all the strategy goes out the window the first time a customer, vendor or competitor does something that you didn’t anticipate. Your plans must be flexible and allow you to adapt.

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

William Arthur Ward 1921- 1994, American Writer

You can’t control the wind, waves, or your competitors, but you can adjust your sails to the wind, take advantage of the wind shifts, learn to anticipate them to improve your position and increase your lead. You can’t control the needs, wants or desires of your customers, but you can adjust your service offerings to the market and redirect your efforts towards your client’s needs or towards different clients. Change is inevitable. Do not fight it—embrace it.

Bob Roitblat
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Bob Roitblat

Bob Roitblat is a Leadership Capabilities Expert and TEDx speaker. He helps organizations ignite creativity, overcome challenges and capitalize on opportunities. Bob is also the president of Mainsail Consulting Group, a business-advisory firm. Also connect with Bob on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.

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Bob Roitblat
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