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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Will your strategy survive its first encounter?

Will your strategy survive its first encounter?

“No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”

So said Helmuth von Molke, in this often contracted and misattributed quote. He also said this:

“Strategy is a system of expedients; it is more than a mere scholarly discipline. It is the translation of knowledge to practical life, the improvement of the original leading thought in accordance with continually changing situations.”

It sounds to me like Helmuth von Molke was an early proponent of agile thinking. I think he would have liked the current meme phrase “Life comes at you fast”, usually attached to pairs of Tweets showing someone having to radically revise their opinions in the face of reality.

Destination and Action

Strategy defines how you’re going to get where you want to be. How you’re going to achieve your vision and mission. But to pursue the military analogies, strategy can only ever provide you with the rules of engagement. Even with the most rigorous long-term foresight programme, you’re going to be frequently surprised.

Your strategy cannot tell you what to do in each encounter you will face along the road to your destination. Only provide guidance on how you approach it in a manner consistent with your vision and mission.

Near-term foresight

It is much easier to respond in a consistent manner when you see surprises coming a little earlier. They will still be disruptive to your direction of travel, but every week or month of additional time you have to deal with them gives you that bit more control over the response. It may still be reactive but it’s a controlled reaction.

This is why I advocate every organisation running a low-overhead short-term foresight programme as well as looking further out. Imagine driving by plugging a destination into the GPS and then shutting your eyes and following the instructions. It sounds ridiculous but I’ve seen too many organisations behave like this, bouncing off bollards as they blindly pursue a course.

Will your strategy survive its first encounter? You have a much better chance if you see it coming, rather than being ambushed.

Tom Cheesewright