Can business learn from military planning?

“I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

The military love to plan but what do the military know about business?  Are there any lessons I can learn from the military planning process that could help me?

These are questions that you should be asking for the very simple reason, you, as a tax payer and employer, you are paying the military not just for the people and their equipment but for them to develop and refine their processes and these include planning.

The Government and press continuously update us how the military are progressing in different conflict zones and often we hear of the dreadful price paid by many servicemen and women in the line of duty. 

Despite the heavy costs, the military have success on a daily basis that we rarely hear about.  This success is due in no small part to the way the military apply themselves to the planning and execution of the activities they need to carry out to achieve the effects that lead to real progress in conflict zones.

Many of these activities are exactly the same as business is doing on a daily basis, and this includes selling. The military are selling themselves, their activities, their presence to the local populations and selling their capability in a way that deters people from wanting to attack them on a daily basis.

Military activity is all planned and their planning processes are rigorously tested and have been used to good effect in the commercial world, but very little is written about them.

The military have a common planning methodology used in most scenarios many of which do not involve fighting, and include activities ranging from high-level negotiations, supply of fast moving spares and goods, to the building of infrastructure. The parallels between military operations and the commercial world are very strong.

So what?  The methodology used has been developed by people and organisations funded by you.  It isn’t secret or military specific and there are lessons you can apply to your business environment.

The military love processes and due to the scrutiny of operational decisions those processes must be recorded and auditable. However, the luxury of having time to prepare detailed plans rarely happens so the basic planning processes are simple and quick to apply.  Without realising it military planning has built in lean and quality principles.  

The standard military planning process to is called the 7 Question Estimate. This process is flexible, so the format shouldn’t be followed dogmatically; it is an adaptable template. 

The overall planning process is in 4 stages:

  1. Preliminary Activity: this is the thinking phase where you ask “What do I want to do/achieve and why?”“What risk am I prepared to take?”and “How important is this?”
  2. Situational Analysis: this is all about yourself, your customer/clients and your competitors as well as the current market
  3. Work through the 7 Questions to develop the Plan.
  4. Implement and most importantly continually review the Plan.

The 7 Questions, from a business perspective, are:

  1. What are my competitors and customers/clients doing and why?
  2. What have I been asked or told to do or what do I want to do and why?

(Understanding the why in these questions is important)

  1. What tasks, for what effect, can I deduce that my customer/client needs me to do? (This will give me my KPIs)
  2. What actions must I take to achieve each effect?
  3. What resources do I need to achieve each effect?
  4. When and where do the actions take place in relation to each other?
  5. What control measures do I need in place or to propose?

3 Outputs

  1. Direction to the team (or yourself) and this should include:
  2. What’s going on?
  3. What we’re going to do and how success will be measured?
  4. Who is going to be working with us?
  5. Who has to do what and by when?
  6. How we’re going to communicate over the course of the project?

Every member of the team should know what the project intent is 2 levels above their grade, this keeps everyone working to the overarching common goal.

  1. Project major points summary.This is an overview for everyone to check before reading the plan. It keeps busy people on the same song sheet and also stimulates thought; in essence it forms the first few pages of the plan.
  2. The plan. There could be many different iterations but the best advice is to cover the most likely and most dangerous scenarios. The format of the plan is irrelevant but it should be as simple as possible and be something that you will use. It is vital that there is a continual review of the major points in the plan always asking, “Has the situation changed?”

The planning process, where practical, should be replicated at every level to ensure common ownership. No matter what Eisenhower says a plan that is written and sits on the shelf unused, is a waste.

It takes a little practice to get the techniques right but afterwards you will realise what a simple, transferrable planning process this is, able to inform your sales and marketing strategies or to drive any project forward.  The keys are simplicity, understanding, everyone working to one common goal and continual review.

Philip Ingram MBE with Grey Hare Media (www.greyharemedia.com)spent 26 years as a military planner.  He has successfully used this process in developing a market re-entry plan for a cast steel manufacturer, developing a training export plan for a NHS Charity, developing a novel vehicle marketing strategy for a small inventor and in project planning for several businesses within the multi-billion-pound global security market. This article was first written for and published by the IoD in their West Midlands quarterly magazine.