Posted by: Long Huynh | May 11, 2009

To Plan or not to Plan, this is a CIO question

Did you have early last year a plan for (how to deal with) the economic downturn? And this month, do you have a plan for its return to growth? In short, do you have a plan for different market scenarios? If you ask the CIOs, the most likely answer is NO. Few would be able to say:

“Yes, we have anticipated the downturn and here is our Plan A to deal with it. By the way, we also anticipate its return to growth x months after and here is our Plan B. Just in case the downturn gets prolonged for another y months, here is our Plan C.”

The sad truth is that the majority of us don’t plan for every eventualities. We don’t have the habit or practice to do so. We don’t have the time to do, so we say. We are good at developing the annual IT plan (mostly a budget, with perhaps a list of projects to do). We are also good at developing topical and ad hoc ones (e.g. Influenza A Pandemic Action Plan). We have plans for every IT aspects: operating plans, project plans, audit plans, disaster recovery plans … We have plans for every business functions: financial plans, human resources plan, marketing plans, engineering plans … We have plans for every time frames: annual plans, monthly plans, daily plans … However, we build plans to response to something instead of to anticipate something. And when we do build plans in anticipation (we call them strategic plans), we put them in the context of a large time horizon (3-5 years). These long-range plans are worse than having no plans at all, they are the albatross around our neck, forcing us to follow through for example with a 3-year implementation of a unified Enterprise Resources Planning system across all divisional units when the business itself undergoes changes at all levels. There is no built-in mechanism to adjust these plans on-the-fly, only an annual revision process. And when the revised version looks drastically different from the original one, we ditch the old strategic plan and introduce a new one, with the same time horizon moving forward by another year.

Is it the way to lead the business nowadays? I think not.

Looking back through the history, I see that there existed a model for effective planning: The General Staff organization of the Prussian empire (1808 – 1871) which is recognized as the most advanced warfare planning institution and one that was subsequently studied and imitated by virtually all other military powers (British, French, Russian and American included). The Prussian General Staff was largely responsible for the success of the Prussian army throughout this period (1) and beyond:

“Prussian and German military victories would often be credited professionally to the Chief of Staff, rather than to the nominal commander of an army. Often the commander of an army was himself a member of the General Staff, but it was now institutionally recognized that not only was command leadership important, but effective staff work was a significant key to success in both pre-war planning and in wartime operations.”[Source: Wikipedia]

One reason for its success can be attributed to its legendary level of preparedness:

“As early as 1843, when Europe had been largely at peace for nearly thirty years and most major nations had no plans for war, observers noted sheaves of orders at the Prussian War Ministry, already made out to cover all foreseeable contingencies and requiring only a signature and a date stamp to be put into effect.”[ibid]

Modern CIOs, do you think that you can benefit from the thinking and teaching of these historical Chiefs of Prussian General Staff?


 (1) I purposely make the reference to the Prussian army in this particular period in order to avoid any debate about the German General Staff organization and its role in the World War II. Consult this Wikipedia page for more information on the role of Chief of General Staff in various countries and time lines.



  1. Great article! Plan! For me it’s “Plan Life Don’t Let Life Plan You!


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