On Plans and Institutional Momentum

Everyone loves a good plan. It gives direction, sets expectations, lets us know what’s coming next. It makes everything seem manageable. The problem with plans is that we have trouble letting go of them or allowing them to evolve with circumstances. Best project management principles tell us that the most effective plans are iterative and respond to changing circumstances. As Helmuth von Moltke, the 19th C military strategist reminds, ‘no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy’ – nor should it.

During this global COVID-19 crisis, there is an ongoing debate over the effectiveness of different strategies adopted by governments to deal with the spread of this highly infectious disease. Strategy, tactics, battle and the mobilisation of populations to marshal resources for the war on COVID remind us that we often portray crisis management in military terms. Needless to say, it’s more than metaphorical. Throughout history, nations have risen to the challenge of war. Differing cultural, social and economic realities often lead to differing strategies. We look to history and past experience for answers.

We developed our healthcare plans in peacetime. The strategies, tactics and most importantly, how we manage our logistic supply are predicated upon normalcy. There are contingencies and emergency preparedness processes. This is not to sell our healthcare services short. These plans are possibly excellent, but they are facing new circumstances and great unknowns for which they were not constructed. We have built systems to fulfil these plans. But we know from organisational behaviour that bureaucracies and administrative delivery systems are intended to deliver stability. All too often, this creates behaviour that attempts to preserve the plans in place. Again, having a plan makes us feel safer and better informed. We believe that we can address complexity and engineer behaviour.

The problem is, humans are tough to engineer, and as we have learned, we are a fragile and frail lot. We have a multitude of objectives and motivations and many conflict with one another and broader societal needs.

Dealing with contingencies is something entirely in conflict with many established bureaucracies, conditioned to achieving normalcy and stability. Plans to maintain stability don’t do well when they attempt to manage the unknown. It doesn’t fit into the plan, and this very often impacts quickly on the logistics chain – often the most complicated aspect of the battle.
Napoleon asserted that ‘amateurs discuss tactics, but professionals discuss logistics’. What Napoleon knew and demonstrated is that effective logistics win campaigns. The great strategists know that you can lose battles, but learn from them and still win the campaign. You often need to lose to win – you have to respond to immediate circumstances and quickly assess the situation and modify tactics, strategy and plans to absorb this learning.

In academia, there is a similar disconnect between plans and objectives. Research projects demand a concise and well-framed proposal – to get funded. The problem arises when the proposal is directly repurposed to become the project plan to deliver the research. The proposal was designed to get funded. It does not necessarily have any relevance to how to conduct the project.

The human inclination to have a plan, any plan, unfit for purpose or otherwise holds true in too many sectors of society. It’s habitually human. The problem is we need rapidly evolving plans to carry out sophisticated logistical responses to the COVID-19 crises. Unfortunately, this often goes against our human and institutional tendencies.

In the UK, during both world wars, strong leadership recognised this institutional failure. During both national crises, rapid response meant moving outside the existing systems and often drafting an outsider to subvert the usual bureaucracy and put effective logistics operations into effect. Although our front-line healthcare workers are making the ultimate sacrifices to win the battle, they are suffering from a lack of supplies and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). This is not through negligence, but simply because logistics systems are predicated upon stability and are often by construction unprepared for emergencies. As a result, they are unable to react with agility, or as von Moltke posited, bend with the storm and respond to a fluid a situation.

During World War II, Winston Churchill turned to Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, to deal with the unprecedented challenge of wartime aircraft production – especially during the Battle of Britain. A media mogul who found repeated success in the private sector, Beaverbrook cut corners, re-channelled supplies, set up parallel processes and made many enemies amongst military as he developed new efficiencies and got material and supplies to precisely where they needed to be. He was not constrained by politics or existing systems predicated upon rigid hierarchies. Beaverbrook had a single objective – maximise production to offset spiralling losses. With a clear agenda and objective, he tailored processes to meet a new reality and to re-invent these processes daily to respond to changing circumstances. He wasn’t looking for a long term position (and frequently sought to resign) nor was he building an empire designed to be sustained. He focussed on solving an immediate problem – one that was not part of the plan.

His success demonstrated that the existing logistic services in their rigidity were incapable of meeting the needs of the crisis simply because they were not designed to evolve with changing circumstances. They functioned relatively well – until they met the enemy.

Especially in Western Europe, our governments attempt to provide us with stability. We have increasingly become convinced that this is in our interest. Although not necessarily opposed to our interests, it is most clearly in the interest of the party in power. As a result, bureaucracies have evolved to support governmental interests and not necessarily serve the society it represents.

Instability may well be in society’s best interests. Instability often conditions to an ability to deal quickly with changing circumstances and ultimately deliver resiliency in an evolving world that faces many great unknowns. Realising that we know less than we may think we do reminds us of our fallibility and reaffirms our need to seek resilience and that bureaucratic stability weakens our ability to deal with crises springing from the unknown.

We find ourselves in these times of great unknowns. The terrifying threat of a global pandemic with an unknown cure means we are indeed in a battle for the lives of our citizens. We have to question whether our logistic lines are appropriately capable of delivering the front-line supplies that our healthcare soldiers need. Examples from the past remind us that the circumstances we face are unique but that how we face them is something that we do know. Fresh, focussed thinking from outside blinkered systems often has mobilised new processes to meet social and human rather than our systematically generated ones. Eisenhower once said ‘Leaders win through logistics’. To not to re-invent and evolve our supply chains to deliver the materials our healthcare workers need and to fight the battle, we are all engaged in is to ignore the lessons of history.

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