3 Project Planning Lessons from Eisenhower

3 Project Planning Lessons from Eisenhower

3 Project Planning Lessons from Eisenhower

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3 Lessons from The Project Manager of The Project. With a little help from Bill Belichick, Edward Lorenz, Benjamin Button, Mark Twain and my daughters.

During the annual run up to the Super Bowl last year, I kept reading articles quoting Coach Bill Belichick quoting Dwight Eisenhower - "plans are worthless but planning is everything". Belichick being the master of adjustments, I understood him to mean that during a game, changing situations require adjustments to the original game plan. I gathered Eisenhower meant the same but within the context of war. I searched and found many other blogs and postings that said the same.  I had read some biographies on Eisenhower so he wasn't completely new to me. He was an iconic figure that lead the greatest military campaign in the greatest war. He added to that by becoming President during one of the most critical and my favorite time periods - the Fifties. But I couldn't remember the quote from my readings. I interpreted the meaning of it and found the same interpretation in the other postings but I wondered what did the man himself really mean and was there any more to gain from the broader context of its use.

As it turns out the words were not a dramatic remark moments before or after the first men landed on the beach in Normandy on D-Day. This was no Robert Oppenheimer "I have become death...." moment when the first nuclear bomb was exploded in New Mexico. The words were part of remarks Eisenhower gave for the National Defense Executive Conference on November 14, 1957. The full remarks can be found at the American Presidency Project website.

After reading the original remarks and better understanding the context of the quote it doesn't alter my original interpretation but it adds to my understanding. Eisenhower touches on three valuable insights on project planning and life. Because what is life but our most important project.

Life Being What it is - a Series of intersecting lives and Incidents Out of Anyone's Control

In the speech Eisenhower said

"There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of "emergency" is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning."

I think this is true of both emergency's and even the every day. The Scientist Edward Lorenz coined the term, the butterfly effect, to metaphorically describe how a hurricane's detail can be influenced by a butterfly's flapping of its wings weeks earlier. In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.

I agree - Yowza! A more down to earth explanation of the butterfly effect is in this 3 minute scene from the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Watch it - it's worth it.

So our movement through time is not only dependent on the titanic events but also the smallest seemingly insignificant events. Therefore the premise of any detailed plan we make has to be that it will be wrong - too many variables for us to be able to see or predict and any small change could have much larger impacts than expected or foreseen.

The Road is Long and in the End the Journey is the Destination

Eisenhower continued


"So, the first thing you do is to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window and start once more. But if you haven't been planning you can't start to work, intelligently at least. That is the reason it is so important to plan, to keep yourselves steeped in the character of the problem that you may one day be called upon to solve--or to help to solve."

So the plan itself is not the value hence there isn't much point in using a previous plan or a canned plan. The value is in the planning, the thought process you go through to build the plan, the skills you develop in doing this over an over, the adjustments you make in executing the plan, the problems you solve, the risks you think through, the surprises you encounter, the new approaches you try and the new ideas you open yourself to see - so the planner by way of planning is the true value rather than the plan itself.


"The only unchanging factor in war is the most changeable, uncertain, unpredictable element in war, and that is human nature. But the human nature of today is exactly what it was, apparently, in the time of Pericles and Alexander and down through the ages to this day.....So you do have that one point from which to start, that you are going to have the same kind of people to meet with, the same kind of human problems to solve that your predecessors have had all the way back to the Pharaohs."

Ah ha! This is the point that I didn't get from the quote itself but from the full set of remarks. It's the most important and obvious (obvious like common sense means it never really turns out to be obvious or common). In my project called life, I wake up everyday to meet two valuable team members hitting me daily with human nature- my two daughters. My older daughter can drive me crazy as she can be relentless in trying to get what she wants. Sometimes I lose my temper as a result. My younger daughter can be very quiet outside of the house so I worry she won't express her true self.

But here's the thing. The relentlessness that drives me crazy is also the same relentlessness my older daughter uses to drive herself to be one of the top students in her school. The same relentlessness that drives her to accomplish goals that I didn't even think about at her age. And out of the quiet of my younger daughter comes her ability to listen to and understand so much around her that others miss. An awareness that translates into empathy and kindness that melts my heart and gives her a priceless perspective beyond her years.

Overpowering egos, infighting, inability to compromise, the tendency to talk rather than listen, old grudges, squabbling factions, over confidence, under confidence and the sometimes messiness of our personal lives all come together when there are more than one person in the room. So you can't be surprised or even upset when you encounter it as a project leader or participant. The very difficult challenge is finding ways to get through the human nature that masks the value underneath and also understand that sometimes these seemingly negative aspects also give rise to the positive ones as well.

The human element of projects (and life) are the most difficult to manage and the most impacting to both success and failure. It's the part of managing where you rely more on EQ than IQ. When my younger daughter gets a little older I will be getting her help on this one. Mark Twain said "there is a great deal of human nature in people". I've learned it to be our biggest weakness but also our greatest strength.

I hate war as only a soldier can...

I've come to greatly admire Eisenhower as a leader and I felt his experiences in leading large initiatives are with few parallels. He died in 1969 when I was only three so I did not live through his times. When he left office in 1961 he was more of a grandfatherly figure and history at that moment was celebrating the torch being passed to a new younger cooler generation.

So I had preconceived notions about him but when I started to learn more about him I was quite surprised. He said, "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity." During his eight years as President he bluffed the Soviet Union on using the Nuclear Bomb. He knew full well using it would mean the end so he worked behind the scenes to ensure it would not be used. In his Presidential farewell speech he warned about the growing military-industrial complex - the misplaced power that results as well as the cost taking away from important institutions like the building of hospitals and schools.

I think of projects as a way to solve problems or challenges. Here was Eisenhower's challenge in 1942 as noted in Stephen E. Ambrose's The Supreme Commander : "to build an army, secure the shipping to get it overseas, establish an organization through which agreement could be reached with the British on a strategy to defeat Germany, and resist the pull of the Pacific." Talk about a series of intersecting lives and incidents and overcoming and fully using human nature.

From that perspective I felt that Eisenhower was certainly someone to listen to when he said "plans are useless but planning is everything."

Source: Ravi Madhavan
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