While president in 1957, Dwight Eisenhower popularized an expression he’d heard in the Army: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Of course, plans are fixed and finite and address problems with a relatively high degree of certainty (i.e., getting from A to B, when the road is well known).
But strategy is a little bit different. It’s an uncertain endeavor, and so I propose Ike’s dictum requires a makeover for its strategy corollary: ‘Strategies are worthless. The strategist is everything.’
Strategy presumes a flesh-and-blood adversary (or a particularly shifting and dangerous environment) which threatens strategic obsolescence at any moment. From the second the ink on any strategy dries on the page, the adversary reacts and may render that strategy obsolete.
This is why Edward Luttwak describes the logic of strategy as particularly paradoxical—an endeavor in which a good road becomes a bad road to take because the enemy can see that it’s a good road that you’d want to take. Or, to prepare for peace is to invite war and to prepare for war may invite peace.
So, given this, how should we posture for success?
Well, every strategy is a blend of design and adaptation. However, on balance, we should always privilege adaptation over design in the face of an ever-changing adversary. In this way, the strategist is more trial lawyer than tax lawyer, more chef than baker, more boxer than ballplayer. As Mike Tyson so eloquently pointed out, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Strategists, therefore, must be prepared to adjust to overcome, at all times, because every strategy potentially might go stale at any moment. That means strategists will always carry a bit of panic and paranoia—owing to a constant sense that something’s wrong—but it also means that the strategist will always have a job (and, speaking as one, that’s a very good thing).