Lately I’ve seen things circulating yet again which reflect on the old adage, one I’ve even used myself, that ‘plans are worthless, but planning is everything’. I believe this original quote is credited to Dwight D. Eisenhower, though the quote has been paraphrased and altered through the years. A point being made by this quote is that there is great value in the process of planning. The coordination between parties. The effort put into considering strategies and analyzing variables. Meeting people at the planning table for the first time instead of the heat of battle (or a response). And that such activity can have greater value than the documented outcome.
In recognition of these points, and with all due respect to Ike, I’ve grown tired of this quote and all derivations thereof. Why? Because plans are NOT worthless.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, plans CAN be worthless. I’ve seen plenty that fit this definition. But to lay a blanket over all plans, I think is an overgeneralization. In fact, it’s rather insulting to the time and effort put forth by the planning team and the plan writers and an insinuation of a waste of funds which may have been spent to support the process. If your plan is really that worthless, this is likely to be a reflection of a terribly executed planning process – which then really negates the spirt of the quote in the first place.
Yes, there is great value in the planning process WHEN DONE PROPERLY. But a well-executed planning process should also bring about a valuable plan. While I’ve never seen a plan address all circumstances of an incident with even moderate complexity, a well written plan should get you most of the way there. It should also lay the groundwork for getting you the rest of the way through moderate deviations from the plan and some improvisation. If you think of your plan as a roadmap, you need to anticipate and plan for the potential for multiple detours, GPS outages, potty breaks, and a flat tire or two. It’s a fundamental principle of emergency management that we need to expect the unexpected, which makes the unexpected not so unexpected after all.
If you approach planning with the anticipation that an incident will force you to deviate from your plan, accommodate that in the plan. As I’ve told people for years, don’t plan yourself into a corner. Give yourself outs. Identity contingencies and alternate strategies. Even if you don’t plot the entirety of the detour, identify the exits and give guidance for how the unknown might be navigated. Extreme detail for all possible alternatives will give us plans with hundreds or thousands of pages which no one will ever use.
Speaking of using plans, the disuse of plans might actually be the largest failure. It’s unfortunately a rare occasion I’ve ever seen anyone reference a plan during a response. A very early question should be ‘what does the plan say?’. We need to analyze our current circumstances and see how they apply to the plan assumptions, then use the guidance formulated in the plan the best way possible. For more on emergency planning, check out this post authored by me and this one authored by Ashley Morris.
© 2022 Tim Riecker, CEDP