Plans are futile. Nevertheless, I’m planning a motorcycle trip to the Arctic Circle to be followed by a visit to Dad in Alaska. Call it a bucket list item. Modern technology makes planning for a trip like this easier than ever. There are even several video diaries of people who have done the trip so you can even preview all the scenery and major stops along the way. No two of those trips are alike because life happens to greater or lesser degrees.
The most recent change to my trip plan was prompted by a highway in Yukon Territory washed out and is down to one lane, so I decided to go through British Columbia instead. At first the four-hour delay rankled my transportation planning sensibilities, and then a look at the terrain map convinced me that this delay was the best thing to happen to my planning so far. The mountains along the detour will provide beautiful scenery.
Planning such a trip makes me nostalgic for when I used to plan transportation operations in different places around the world, especially for over-size and other special freight. It always amazed me that no matter how well-planned, something happened that wasn’t in the plan. Protestors shutting down a freeway in Italy, a plane breaking hard at a Sub-Saharan airfield, and overseas customs officials stealing important shipments (er, sorry, they were “lost”) are the first events that come to mind. These events had a bunch of us pulling our hair out and swearing as we cursed the futility of our well-laid plans.
Plans might be useless, but what has saved things over and over is the planning. Like Dwight Eisenhower said back in 1957, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Ike said he had heard that saying long before while he was in the Army. Every time I’ve cursed the futility of our plans, I’ve known that our planning gave us foresight to prepare for the unexpected.”
The better our planning, the better our foresight seemed. I saw no reason to tell anybody that we had prepared for many scenarios, only one of which happened to be similar to the unexpected disruption we confronted. The most important kind of foresight that you can have is: the foresight to engage in planning responses to the what-ifs and potentialities.
Eisenhower proved on many occasions to have a lot of foresight. In World War II, he ordered that the Nazi concentration camps be photographed and documented, and he had the local people come see the horrors because he feared that one day people would find them too horrible to believe.
As President, he perhaps most famously pushed for the massive investment in the interstate highway system that now bears his name. And on his way out as President, he started the tradition of more organized transitions. All of these foresightful actions in the face of high uncertainty were the results of deep—sometimes years-long—planning processes.
I’m planning my motorcycle trip so that I know the lay of the land and know where the distances between gas stations are putting me at risk of running out of gas, and what sort of weather might happen along the way. My plan seems unlikely to survive past the first few days, yet my planning will give me foresight in the form of knowing what my options might be and how to adapt to the unexpected.
The pace of change and disruptions will continue to increase. As we navigate a new era of uncertainty in global supply chains, it can be tempting to manage to the uncertainty. This is a mistake on many levels, especially because everyone faces the same uncertainty and you can’t change it anyway.
Let’s call these actions the equivalent of failing to keep your eye on the ball—focusing on the uncertainty instead of your response will have results akin to catching a baseball with your teeth instead of in your glove. Instead, focus on planning so that you’re informed, and invest in training to develop deep competence in your talent pool. This is how best to maintain a state of readiness.
About the Author
Michael Gravier is a Professor of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at Bryant University with a focus on logistics, supply chain management and strategy and international trade. Follow Bryant University on Facebook and Twitter.