As the legendary Prussian General, Helmuth von Motke, said, No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

I’ve noticed a tendency for C-Suite executives to emerge from planning retreats with what I call Sudoku Strategies — plans predicated on the comforting assumption that the future is just waiting out there, and if we can only describe it clearly enough, we can project ourselves into the neat picture we’ve painted.

Of course, unlike in Sudoku, there’s no guarantee that the future will consist of neat rows of the numbers 1 through 9. In real life, there are often numbers missing (where did that 7 go anyway?) or repeating numbers (I thought that 3 was supposed to last only one quarter!), or negative numbers (minus 6! where did that come from?). Often a row may not contain numbers at all — but rather blanks, or letters, or characters as yet entirely unknown to us.

If we could predict the future, there wouldn’t have been a dot-com bust, a mortgage meltdown, or airlines in a tailspin because of oil at $130 a barrel.

Sudoku Strategies look great on paper, but often do more to mask the truth than to reveal it. Even the most carefully constructed strategy will lead to failure if it prevents us from seeing beyond its neat nine-by-nine box. As the legendary Prussian General, Helmuth von Motke, said, No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

But wait a minute — what about that old chestnut, He who fails to plan, plans to fail? Surely we need to plan.

Yes, we do. The answer to the apparent contradiction lies in the wisdom of Dwight Eisenhower, who said, In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. It’s not the plan that’s important, but the process of planning. By planning — and then being ready to abandon the plan if necessary — we learn about our own capabilities, our shortcomings, and our assumptions. We begin to understand ourselves and the conditions that prevail now. We understand that our greatest strength is the ability to adapt. Without this, we cannot respond effectively to the unpredictable and inevitable changes ahead.

I prefer Scrabble Strategies. In a Scrabble game, you have a limited number of variables to work with, and an infinite, but uncertain future. You have a good chance of winning if you continually assess current conditions and imagine future possibilities. But if you’re not willing to abandon your ideas when they become unworkable, you will lose.

About the author

Tim Hurson

Tim Hurson

Tim teaches productive thinking in business schools throughout the US, Canada, Chile, and Australia.…

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