“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near one.”— J.R.R. Tolkien
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”— Benjamin Franklin
“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”— Yogi Berra
“Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes; but no plans.”— Peter F. Drucker
“Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.”— Winston Churchill
“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”— Dwight D. Eisenhower
Hope for the best, but plan for the worst: Sounds easy until you try it. How can you even get started when it is often impossible to specify either “best” or “worst”, or both? Maybe a more practical approach is to hope to get lucky (best) but plan for what-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong (worst).
Planning effectively has never been so important as it is today, but it has rarely if ever been so difficult. Plans drive serious actions so the plans need to be solid. Planning errors can get very expensive very quickly otherwise.
But planning today is different. It is one thing to plan in a stable, predictable world but quite another to plan in a world that is fast-changing and unpredictable. Even worse today is that we must plan despite the possibility of a nuclear WWIII in the near future.
Even though a nuclear WWIII seems very unlikely, as argued in the previous post, it cannot be ignored. “Unlikely” does not imply a zero-probability.
Non-zero probability of nuclear WWIII
My earlier thoughts on the likelihood of a nuclear WWIII being effectively zero are getting some pretty serious contradictions lately. The big problem is figuring out what the real story is behind all of the generally unreliable reports. This seems impossible at the moment but indications are becoming quite scary.
For example, I read somewhere a few days ago that the FlightRadar24 site, which tracks real-time global flights, showed a bunch of Russian military flights out of Moscow and landing in the Ural Mountains, where Russia’s nuclear war bunkers are supposedly located. Pretty hard to fake actual flight data so this may indicate something major is underway in Russia.
What to make of this in the context of real-world planning is unclear to say the least. My sense is that it represents a solid “heads-up” alert concerning the odds that a major (nuclear) confrontation are increasing. If these flights are evacuating top Russian officials from Moscow, then this is indeed very bad news. You don’t do this unless you know something big and it is coming very soon. More on this below.
So, can we do anything about this in our planning, or does it simply suggest that a flock of black swans are on the way – about which we can really do nothing? Before dealing with this very tough issue, it might be good to lay out a framework for plans and planning in practice, in our reality.
“Plans are nothing; planning is everything”
This Dwight Eisenhower quote is one of my favorites. Eisenhower, besides being a two-term president of the U.S., was also one of the most successful military generals of all time. During World War II, he served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, and achieved the rare five-star rank of General of the Army. This guy knew whereof he spoke but what – in practice – did he actually mean?
In reality, the situation and outlook are in constant motion, changing in often unpredictable ways. Any plan you make must be able to deal with a changing current and future context, in many cases making the plan – almost immediately – essentially useless. When this happens, as it usually does, you have to plan again. And again, and again.
This sounds to me like an ongoing planning process, where the plan-du-jour is simply a record of the process progress to date. Planning as a process is indeed everything. It does not have an end-point. Plans are just progress markers and of no value in terms of action except transiently and locally.
A planning process is guided by a goal or desired outcome
The constant, more or less, in a planning process is the goal or outcome that resulting actions are expected to achieve. Since the real world changes constantly, the action set must be regularly modified to reflect the changed situation, but the goal or desired outcome will rarely change. Goal changes are typically the result of learning from early actions what works and what doesn’t. What you are aiming at may simply be unattainable or not what you expected or wanted.
Planning to learn rather than to act
Most planning in businesses and organizations is aimed at guiding actions over some period for the unit’s primary functions. But there is another valuable use of planning, and that is simply to learn. Experimentation, if you will.
The idea here is that you may have several decent options for potential action but no persuasive way to tell which one is most likely to succeed. Coin-flipping or its management equivalent is probably not going to work well enough, despite the all-to-common practice of doing just this.
If each of the leading options can be broken into a set of preliminary steps, you can use a stepwise approach. The early step goals would be designed to find out how a market or other external target responds in practice. Not every goal can be broken into practical, small steps, but most can if you get creative enough.
This process does not necessarily involve a pilot program, which usually belongs further down the way. The “small steps” should be as small and low-risk as possible, consistent with the ability to provide you with valuable decision guidance.
Isn’t the planning process output a “plan”?
Planning processes have traditionally been aimed at producing a process output, a plan, that documents where the process has reached and what has been concluded. The plan document then becomes an action blueprint. The planning process stops at this point, to be resumed in up to a year in most cases, and plan execution then becomes the management focus.
Such plans may need to be adjusted between such planning processes as new situations are encountered but adjustment processes of this nature are rarely regarded as planning processes. Instead, they are part of routine management (execution) processes.
Doesn’t this mean that plans are in fact not useless but vital to plan execution?
In a reasonably static or slowly changing world, the answer here is probably yes. The plan as a process product remains largely valid so long as it is tweaked occasionally along the way.
The problem here is that, in wartime as well as in COVID-time, things are changing continually, quickly, and in mostly unexpected ways. Certainty in any practical sense is unavailable. The best you can do is simply adapt to whatever is happening as it happens. Winging it, as they say. Improvising.
The plan document in such times becomes outdated almost before much of it can be put into action. Planning must be resumed – informally as needed and as practical, but the annual process structure is largely missing. Here, the plan itself is effectively nothing or mostly useless.
A continuous planning process is vital today
We are definitely in fast-changing, uncertain times, with no return to “normal” in sight. Plans are static and unsuited to such a world. Instead, to the extent that anything is documented, the planning process notes – which are part of the ongoing process – serve to keep track of where things stand and why. Plans are planning process documents, in effect.
It is the planning process itself that changes – fundamentally. There is no time for development of reports and supporting research. This is a real-time process that requires all of its essential elements to be effectively real-time as well.
Today, planning meetings may be mostly remote and virtual. Process documents may be emails, messages, and application-enabled (think Slack). Sounds very much like our working reality today, does it not?
Planning happens when it is needed, not pre-scheduled far in advance. It may occur several times weekly, or even almost uninterrupted when things become especially chaotic.
This probably describes pretty much the wartime world of General Eisenhower. And now, ours.
Okay, so how does this work in reality?
Many business decisions require significant periods of time to plan for and to execute. Nothing very real-time is possible here. You really do have to develop a relatively long-term “plan” for your project or business activity.
All plans (and planning) are based on some assumptions about the relevant future. Too often, these assumptions are left implicit and largely unrecognized. Big mistake. Assumptions that turn out wrong or worse can kill your business.
Planning as a routine management process must now identify all important assumptions and provide for routine checking of each one against what is happening right now. It is a kind of business environment monitoring in real-time.
As the world deviates enough from any of your critical assumptions to warrant adjustment of your associated plan, this would be done, and briefly documented, as part of daily management activities.
Changes in the world are no longer slow enough to be tracked annually or even quarterly in many cases. You need to stay on top of any major change that can affect your current plan and actions.
Like an ever-increasing World War III possibility. And an endless flow of questionable reports and opinions about what is going on.
How do you plan for a (highly-unlikely?) nuclear World War III?
Media statements that point to an imminent WWIII are very common as of mid-March 2022. An example, among many others: “The pressure to start World War III is on. NATO now expects that there will be a major war with Russia and the confrontation may come even in a few weeks. The NATO Secretary-General announced an increased war alert for hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Stoltenberg issued a joint statement with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, stating that hundreds of thousands of NATO troops were placed on high alert along with 100,000 US troops.”.
Is this real, or mostly propaganda in a very tense world? Lots of troops on “high alert” certainly sounds pretty scary. More importantly, what if anything should a business or organization do or plan to do in response?
World War III seems definitely to have begun, but is not (yet) nuclear
The last post concluded that a “world war” of some kind is in progress today – political, economic, money, oil, … . A “world war” because pretty much the whole world is involved and/or impacted. These impacts alone could justify calling it WWIII because it seems likely to have an impact magnitude comparable to World Wars I and II. No nukes yet in this WWIII, and their likelihood stills seems extremely low. For today, at least.
Some ideas for addressing a non-nuke WWIII were outlined in the post referenced above. A nuclear WWIII adds the horrendous problem of dealing with radioactive fallout almost globally and probably billions of deaths. That’s a different situation entirely – by several orders of magnitude. All bets are off, as they say, if that occurs. Plans and planning both useless then.
More practically, what might we do in the absence of being vaporized or terminally irradiated? This prospect seems far more likely at the moment than the nuke one, and it is probably the only one that can be addressed today in planning.
What is a “world war”?
As Mao Zedong supposedly said, “Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed.”.
Quite simply, in my mind, it describes a major conflict among nations – globally – and it involves people – not just soldiers – getting killed as a result of the conflict. The conflict, in order to be “major”, includes political, economic, trade (oil, food, water, production materials), and other life essentials. This seems to be what we have today, perhaps not yet fully rolled out, but well on the way.
A non-nuke world war of this kind can effectively be as bad as a nuke-war in that huge numbers of people can die, or be seriously harmed, by famine and lack of medical care rather than blast and radiation effects. “War” I think has to be assessed in terms of damage, not mechanics.
A WWIII plan as of today
This involves keeping a daily eye on what is happening in the WWIII “reporting” and conjecturing. Particular attention paid to what the big players are doing, not what they are saying. Example here is moving big shots out of capital cities and to somewhere “safe”. It’s just a “drill”, so they say. Wanna bet?
If WWIII goes nuclear, there is not much anyone can do . The prepping guidelines simply won’t work when the entire world gets smoked and irradiated. Forget plans in this situation.
Below is what I would suggest as a way to deal with the current non-nuke WWIII which is definitely underway now and doing its best to get worse.
Planning in a (non-nuke) World War III environment
This is completely different from planning in a stable, predictable, non-conflict world such as we had way back in the good old days pre-COVID. Keywords here include “highly unstable”, “unpredictable”, “fast-changing”, and “huge”. Kind of like a continuous black swan situation that is unforeseeable in nature, timing, and magnitude.
Planning for the unforeseeable of a black swan kind requires a focus on:
- Agility – the ability to move quickly and change direction quickly. It involves very close attention to current conditions. It requires a very different kind of organization and culture. See this post.
- Adaptability – the ability to function effectively in a wide variety of situations and events. It means an absence of rigidity and presence of operational flexibility. See this post.
- Resilience – the ability to recover from almost any kind of adverse impact or situation. It goes well beyond survival and extends to success post-recovery. See this post and this post.
A three-level planning process outline
Putting all of this together requires in my mind three separate levels of planning today: (1) assumptions; (2) agility-adaptability-resilience; and (3) the business itself. These are normally mixed together in an overall process but I don’t think that will work well in these times. They should be addressed separately, and in parallel.
1. Critical Planning Assumptions
It is critical today both to identify the major assumptions that underly your planning and to track the validity of these assumptions in almost real-time. Anything can change in a matter of days, and can change enough to make what you have recently planned less likely to succeed.
My sense of things that you need here might include:
- World War III
- Dollar Devaluation
- Oil supplies
- Food supplies
You can probably think of quite a few more but you need a short enough list to allow routine tracking. Each one should have a brief overview, followed by how it may affect your organization or business directly. Think critical materials or supply chains here, for example.
2. Building Agility, Adaptability, and Resilience
Fast-changing situations require a built-in, broad-based, agility, not just a set of quick reactions. A typical organization today is anything but agile. Real agility takes time to figure out and develop.
Unforeseeable situations means that your organization must be highly adaptable – able to handle a wide a range of situations and events as they occur. Organizational hierarchies should probably be replaced as much as possible by small teams with a focus on creativity and innovation (these are different, as you know).
A recent post addressed this topic in terms of unit size and span of control. Small units tend to be the most adaptable if not encumbered by a rigid hierarchy.
Knowing that your organization will almost certainly get hit by whatever happens means that it must be inherently resilient. Resilience does not just happen but is always the result of very careful and creative planning.
You have to start with a solid understanding of your most vulnerable points. This approach has been addressed here and here. My preference is for a business simulation tool to locate vulnerabilities, to develop ways to mitigate or remove them, and to keep track of any emerging points of vulnerability. Big topic.
In any case, top of your planning list should be these three fundamental capabilities. You cannot build these while you are dealing with a major situation or impact. The right time to get started is yesterday.
3. Changing the Business (Organization) and Opportunities
This final level is really at the heart of what your business organization is and does. It is the focus of typical planning processes.
Unlike the past when the world was relative stable and predictable, today’s world for most businesses and organizations is largely or completely unpredictable and fast-changing. Planning itself has to be changed accordingly.
The primary change in planning is the addition of targets intended to deal in some rational way with the current world and your business environment. This can get very complicated very quickly so it is best to pick just three examples of where things should change.
Dealing with impacts of critical assumptions. Shortages and unreliable suppliers seem to be affecting nearly every business. Some of these you can manage around by maintaining larger safety stocks but others may need to be addressed by expanding the supplier base, redesigning products to have more component flexibility, and even moving production of some especially critical items in-house. You are very likely already doing most of this but the main change suggested here is ensuring a tight linkage to your relevant critical assumptions.
Focus on the lower layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Normal times can accommodate businesses that address a wide range of human needs from the full set of Maslow’s hierarchy below. World war times, however, are likely to make the upper three layers “nice-to-have” while the lower two layers – physiological and safety – becoming of primary, immediate concern to customers. Many services directly deal with physiological and safety needs, making them high-priority targets for product/service mix adjustments. These also need clear linkage to relevant critical assumptions.
Non-concentration and diversity. A primary priority in planning during times of world war is to diversify and de-concentrate. Your markets, customers, products, facilities, and cash flow sources should be as spread out as much as possible, both geographically and operationally. The goal here of course is to minimize your exposure to whatever happens in any one place, or even several places. This is something that takes substantial time and planning.
Nobody knows what is coming next – especially in these turbulent times. But we cannot avoid planning despite such uncertainty. You can’t plan for the “best” and you can’t plan for the “worst” because you don’t know what either extreme might be. You must plan, but how? Especially when the prospect of a nuclear World War III is facing us. This post looked both at planning processes and changes that seem vital in a non-nuke World War III environment.
Now for something entirely different: Images that stuck in my mind while I was looking for some hopefully relevant, interesting readings on planning in these times. No luck so far on the readings.
Armies fighting in Ukraine but economic damage everywhere. Truly a world war is underway today but the growing global economic damage may well exceed bomb damage.
It seems increasingly likely that the Ukraine situation will soon fade from view as the resulting economic devastation impacts nearly every country on earth.
UN Security Council meeting at the UN headquarters in New York. A picture of the growing irrelevance of international political organizations like this one. While Klaus Schwab’s World Economic Forum (WEF) is the latest big kid on the block, it too will fade as reality takes over.
Huge political changes are underway today, of which the Ukraine mess is likely a sideshow. The Russia-China alliance is growing in scope and power daily, and now extending to include the remaining BRICS nations (Brazil, India, South Africa).
Oil as a weapon of war. Who needs bombs when you can mess things up everywhere and badly just by sanctioning oil producers and shutting down production.
Oil was a weapon of war in World War II when an oil embargo led almost inevitably to Pearl Harbor. Oil is central to nearly everything these days so when oil exploration, production, and distribution get whacked, we almost automatically have a world-war-like impact to deal with.
Soldiers aren’t the only ones who die in wars. It looks like famine is going to be with us again for quite a while, as it has so many times in history. This can kill far more people than almost any kind of war.
Human devastation in almost any kind of major conflict (aka war) is nearly always greater than whatever the current belligerents manage to cause with bombs. The systems for food growing, harvesting, and distribution are easily as complex and vital as those for oil. But when the food systems are damaged greatly, people starve. Nukes not required.