planning vs execution

Ballpoint pen writing. Streaks of ink are visi...
Ballpoint pen writing. Streaks of ink are visible on the ball, indicating the direction of rotation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Something I learned when I crossed the rank barrier into “administration” is that 99% of the game lies in actually getting the thing done. There is always a lot of talking, planning and meeting but less “doing” than what could be done. It’s always easier to plan than it is to execute.  I try to actually get something “done”… if not daily, than at least weekly.

From the leadership side of the coin, some leaders are better at planning operations than they are at carrying them out. When it comes to operations things never go as planned..Clausewitz called this “friction” and he had the following to say about it.

This difficulty of accurate recognition constitutes one of the most serious sources of friction in war, by making things appear entirely different from what one had expected. The senses make a more vivid impression on the mind that systematic thought – so much so that I doubt if a commander ever launched an operation of any magnitude without being forced to repress new misgivings from the start. Ordinary men, who normally follow the initiative of others, tend to lose self-confidence whey they reach the scene of action. Things are not what they expected, the more so as they still let others influence them. But even the man who planned the operation and now sees it being carried out may well loss confidence in his earlier judgment; whereas self-reliance is his best defense against the pressures of the moment. War has a way of masking the stage with scenery crudely daubed with fearsome apparitions. Once this is cleared away, and the horizon becomes unobstructed, developments will confirm his earlier convictions, this is one the great chasms between planning and execution.

-Clausewitz, C.V. (1984). On War. P. 119-120

What he’s saying (in essence) is that some leaders go in with a plan and when the @#$% hits the fan they start to second guess their plan and loose confidence. This friction causes some leaders to abandon their plans and start to lead reactively..which is rarely good because reactive leadership seldom takes the whole picture into account, it tends to obsess on stamping out fires.

Clausewitz also said:

In short, most intelligence is false, and the effect of fear is to multiply lies and inaccuracies. As a rule most men would rather believe bad news than good, and rather tend to exaggerate the bad news. The dangers that are reported may soon, like waves, subside; but like waves they keep recurring, without apparent reason. The commander must trust his judgment and stand like a rock on which the waves break in vain. It is not an easy thing to do. If he does not have a buoyant disposition, if experience of war has not trained him and matured his judgment, he had better make it a rule to suppress his personal convictions, and give his hopes and not his fears the benefit of the doubt. Only thus can he preserve a proper balance.

Don’t panic..don’t abandon your plan…develop the situation, get things done.

Of course..I can only hope that I adhere to this advice myself. Like I said from the beginning..”its easier to plan than it is to execute”…it’s also easier to give advice than it is to take it.

One thought on “planning vs execution”

  1. Totally agree with this wisdom, but differ on one minor point of interpretation. I think Clausewitz is saying that every person (commander or ‘ordinary’ man) experiences that reality check when the plan leaves the sand table and is really in front of them. Not just some. This is comforting to me because that means that Clausewitz is saying (Possibly) that even the legendary leaders in history (even himself) experienced this moment. By saying this he’s letting ‘mortal’ leaders/soldiers know that it is NOT a sign of weakness or cowardice but just a normal reaction.

    What he does say that differentiates the “Some” from the “Everyone” is that those who rely in “Self Reliance” (aka Confidence, Faith… whatever) will be more successful than the ‘fire stompers’ that become reactionary at the first moment of uncertainty.

    This is only a minor shift in interp IMO, but the connotation that ‘great leaders’ are ‘ordinary men’ who rise about their moments of fear/doubt/uncertainty… means that there’s at least the potential for ‘everyone’ to be ‘great’ at least once in their lives.

    Great post.

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