Don’t get stuck in your plan

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After talking about scenario planning last week, I will now talk about the need to be willing to let go of your plans at a moment’s notice. More specifically, while your overall strategy will likely persist, I bet you that your tactics will need to adapt as you go from planning and envisioning to execution and reality check (or “WTSHTF” as they say).

Have a plan but don’t get stuck in it.

Having a plan is critical. You have to start somewhere. It’s even better if you thought about multiple different scenarios and have plans for each of them. Still, reality will be different from what you envisioned, and your plans need to adjust – right away and in realtime.

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” – Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891)

That is not to say that one should not plan. As a matter of fact, special forces are known for locking themselves into a room before a mission and then meticulously planning out for any scenario and complication they can possibly imagine. However, when it’s go-time, they must modify their plans, adjust, or completely give them up. They get new data, situations change, and they must improvise on the spot. Business consultants would say that they need to be “agile”.

The other day I played chess with our 9-year-old son. He had set a ‘trap’ and waited for me to go into it. In fact, he waited for the whole game while I took his other figures off the board one by one and finally forced him to give up. It wasn’t that his plan was bad – he just didn’t realize that the situation changed. Insisting on his initial assumption and plan got him from a promising position to a hopeless one.

Have a plan, but keep your mind open for what happens, be flexible, adapt. Don’t try to enforce your plan at all costs. – Plan thoroughly, and then be flexible.

While you should start with a plan, you need to keep your mind open to recognize change and adapt or discard your plan if needed.

Traditional martial arts pushes that notion to the extreme, where mastery means not thinking about what you’re doing but just letting it happen, reacting naturally. In martial arts, the goal is to have so much training in advance (i.e., scenario planning and practicing) that reactions in challenging situations become intuitive, and you don’t need or even want a preconceived plan. You perceive with a relaxed mind and react to the inputs you will get.

Build a plan, play scenarios through in your head, draw confidence that you have answers for many of the possible challenges. Then stop ruminating and start executing. Don’t try to enforce your plan – it would break. Observe what’s happening, see what changes, and do what’s needed.

Bruce Lee would say: “Be like water.”


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