Grand planning versus expedients in business strategy

The phrase “no plan survives first contact with the enemy” is often quoted in the context of business strategy. The source of this quote is often not identified correctly. It was actually Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, a Prussian General who came to prominence in the Franco Prussian war of 1870-1871. (Often confused with his nephew of the same name who was a Field Marshall in World War 1).

He actually said “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength” and went on to say “Strategy is a system of expedients”.
His point is you can only plan up to a certain point. After that, typically an initial engagement, you have to look at the situation and the options you have available.
Where von Moltke excelled was in analysing and preparing for all possible options. This approach is left out of a lot of business thinking. The focus is on the plan and not on the potential deviations from the plan. And what options are available when the plan doesnt work out.

An interesting example of this theme is shown in “The Honda Effect“, (Pascale, California Management Review, 1996). This compares how Honda’s management team described their approach to entering the US motorbike market in 1960 versus a subsequent analysis by the Boston Consulting Group.

Looking back on the outcome, the Boston Consulting Group, paints a picture of a strategy driven by low pricing and economies of scale leading to market dominance.

In reality the management team describe how they were short on resources, hitting initial problems, and then making expedient decisions based on current situations.

The implication here is that the chances of success are increased by being prepared on how you can respond to multiple options once that initial engagement takes place.

And being receptive to information and events at the point of engagement is crucial.

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