Why "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything" is (usually) BS

August 6, 2022
I'd rather see a conversation about planning, rather than ending debate with a cheap quip.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, or a variation of it. Often attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, but there are many variations, and even he was quoting someone else.

Now I don’t mean to say that Eisenhower was BSing when he said what he did about plans and planning.

But I do think the way the phrase is most commonly used in businesses these days is BS. For two reasons.

In the circles I frequent, variations of this quote usually come up in the context of planning and estimating software development tasks. And I hate this quote in this context for a very simple reason: It’s a cop-out.

I’ve always seen it employed as a way to end debate, and to maintain the status quo. It’s also often condiscending. Let me illustrate with a believable example:

Person A: Man, that sprint planning session was boring, and what a waste of time! We’ll never get half of that stuff done!

Person B: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.

Interpretation: Stop your whining. There hidden/secret/tacit value in the boring meeting you just attended. If you were just more enlightened, you’d agree with me.

Or maybe a bit more abstract:

Person C: We shouldn’t waste time estimating these stories.

Person D: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.

Interpretation: I don’t care what you think, we’re going to estimate these stories anyway. There’s some hidden/secret/tacit value that you would appreciate if you just had more experience.

What I’d much rather see is a conversation about why Persons A & C think planning is a waste, and Persons B & D disagree. Perhaps there is some value to be gained. But shoving quotes down each others’ throats won’t uncover that value. Seek first to understand; not to end debate with cheap quips.

The second reason I dislike the (ab)use of this quote is that the quote, in most of its various forms, is about war time or emergency response. We do, of course, have emergencies from time to time in business. But sprint planning is not such a case. So let’s stop taking the quote out of context, as well!

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