Strategy and Planning vs. Responding

By Guy Higgins

In reading one of my newsletters recently, I encountered the following quote from Robert McNamara, “There is no longer such a thing as strategy; there is only crisis management.”

First, in the interest of honesty, I have to admit that I am not a fan of the late Secretary McNamara.  I think that he failed grossly as Secretary of Defense during the Viet Nam War in valuing the world’s perception of the U.S. over integrity.  I think that world perception was the driving force behind all his decisions.  He had not thought through what a strategy should be for U.S. national security and how fighting that war fit into that thinking.  He had no solid strategic framework on which to base his decisions.  Without considering the choices, options and consequences through developing a foundational strategy, he only responded to the exigencies of managing a series of crises.  Consequently, he made a lot of very questionable decisions.

Sadly though, I have heard similar opinions expressed by others at varying levels of responsibility and leadership.  Statements like, “We get paid to be able to deal with abnormal events.  We don’t need an endless series of plans.” and, “Strategy is over-valued.  It’s execute, execute, execute.”

I wonder whether or not Secretary McNamara or either of the other two sources (that will remain anonymous) ever really thought about what they were saying.  There is a very old cliché to the extent that, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”  The question then becomes, “Do we want to be wherever there is – when we didn’t know where that was to start with?”  I think that the chances of arriving at a desirable place or situation without having decided ahead of time that that place or situation is where you wanted to be – and then having worked toward it – are not quite as high as winning the lottery.  In fact, given that there are an infinite number of undesirable places and situations, the probability of arriving at a desirable one in the absence of conscious decisions and efforts to get to that desirable goal are roughly … oh, about 0.0 to many millions of significant places.

Managing in a crisis is a necessary skill in the real world.  No matter how well conceived your strategy and how good your plans and preparation, the world will behave badly sometimes, and you will need to respond and manage the results of that bad behavior.  A strategy is important because it sets the goal, the star toward which you’re steering.  During crisis management, you may have numerous opportunities to choose among multiple options – your strategy is the filter that allows you to make choices that will be value-added in the long term and not merely expedient choices now.

Similarly, having a plan to respond to the world behaving badly gives you something to adapt and adjust to actual circumstances as opposed to making it all up in the face of the exploding crisis.  Remember, no matter how experienced or wise we are, as human beings, when faced with a crisis, we will freeze, flee or fight – PERIOD.  As I have noted before, Dr. Leonard Marcus of Harvard calls that “going to the basement” because those responses are controlled by our reptilian complex at the base of the brain.  He further says that getting out of the basement quickly requires two things: recognition that you’re in the basement and a plan.

So, for the “illustrious” Secretary McNamara (and his ilk), your strategy sets your destination/goal and your plan(s) provide you the baseline understanding of how to get there.  Sitting around waiting for a crisis and then responding to it strikes me as pretty close to the ultimate in arrogance – perhaps that’s why I am not a fan of the late secretary.


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