Ask any experienced leader and they can tell you stories of being forced into a situation without options. Options and alternatives give leaders maneuverability and adaptability.
I recently reviewed my notes from Barbara Tuchman’s book, “The Guns of August,” which is about the first 30 days of World War I. To explain the first 30 days of the war – the period in which both the French and the German war planners expected to achieve total victory – Tuchman describes the elaborate planning and pre-staging of troops and material. They had incredibly detailed plans with train schedules, ammunition distribution timetables, meals to feed the troops, succession plans for all critical roles in case someone became wounded or ill, and even forecasts of how many medals would be awarded afterward. The original planning began almost 30 years before the actual start of the war, and the generals created a process for annual updates. They believed war between France and Germany was both inevitable and completely plannable. One reason that WWI lasted more than four years was that the generals and political leaders never considered alternatives to their carefully crafted plans, which disintegrated after only two weeks of battle. They doubled-down on their cherished strategies instead of adapting tactics to the actual situation.
Robert Green speaks about the important of options in his book, “The 33 Strategies of War”:
“The world is full of people looking for a secret formula for success and power. They do not want to think on their own; they just want a recipe to follow. They are attracted to the idea of strategy for that very reason. In their minds strategy is a series of steps to be followed toward a goal. They want these steps spelled out for them by an expert or a guru. Believing in the power of imitating, they want to know exactly what some great person has done before. Their maneuvers in life are as mechanical as their thinking.
To separate yourself from such a crowd, you need to get rid of a common misconception: the essence of strategy is not to carry out a brilliant plan that proceeds in steps; it is to put yourself in situations where you have more options than the enemy does. Instead of grasping at Option A as the single right answer, true strategy is positioning yourself to be able to do A, B, or X depending on the circumstances. That is strategic depth of thinking, as opposed to formulaic thinking.”
Planning remains important. Forecasting is still useful. Dwight Eisenhower, the Allies commanding general who led D-Day and eventual victory over the Nazis, oversaw the most complicated logistics exercise in the 20th century which relied on detailed planning. Yet he remained adaptable and flexible in tactics, delegating much of the specifics to generals close to the actual battle. “In preparing for battle,” he wrote, “I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
The best leaders develop working plans with multiple options. Options are valuable because you have a better range of choices. You don’t have to use an option, but if you don’t have an option you can’t use it.
First, don’t get stuck on one perspective or strategy. Circumstances change. New information becomes available. Practice being attuned to reality and adjusting yourself to the facts of the moment. You’ll often hear genuinely smart people say things like, “It doesn’t make sense that the price of gold is falling because the unstable situation in XYZ location should mean that gold increases.” The new price of gold is the reality; your mental model of how things should work is wrong. Every strategy which has been correct and effective in the past must be constantly reassessed in the present.
Second, don’t limit yourself to defensive positions. Consider the biological world – the creatures with speed and adaptability consistently perform better than creatures wholly dependent on heavy armor. In the business world we can exploit good defensive positions in intellectual property or logistical moats. Don’t expect to rely on a defensive position forever.
Third, develop the habit of producing alternative scenarios and flexible tactics. This is not about procrastinating on a decision, or failing to commit energy and resources to an action plan. Develop action plans which generate options in the future. Ask yourself, “If we do X, what are the two or three new options that we will have?” Expect your team to generate plans B and C. “We recommend plan A, but we can still pivot to plan B.” Then review the plans with them to identify options. It’s often easier for a group of people to see all the possible options than any one person. Generating and identifying options is a learnable practice.
Make yourself filthy rich as a leader: create action plans which give you multiple options.