​To be, or not to be?

Blog post   •   Apr 01, 2016 16:06 BST

General Field Marshall Helmut Von Moltke the elder said: "No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond contact with the enemy’s main strength".

Over time, this quote has been shortened to "No plan survives first contact with the enemy", which in my view is completely at odds with the original and does Field Marshall Moltke a great disservice. The short version has been adopted by those who believe that any kind of plan is a waste of time, and disruptive incidents are best dealt with intuitively. After all, the myth goes on, managers manage and leaders lead, don’t they?

This attitude is reflected in the business approach to business continuity management, often treated as an unnecessary cost, a burden, and something that should be completed with minimal investment and disruption to the business.

The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 has helped enormously by providing a legislative direction for BCM. We also have the International Standard for BC ISO22301/313, Cabinet Office publication Emergency preparedness manual and BCI Good Practice Guidelines 2013. Yet there is still reluctance within many organisations, in particular small and medium sized enterprises to engage with continuity planning.

It will be a slow process to change the mind of those who have a casual approach to BCM, but while that is happening, and it is, I would encourage those who justify their descent with a misquote, to look more carefully at Field Marshall Moltke the elder. He may change your mind and your fortunes!

In the 19th Century he led the Prussian Army to victory against both the Danish and the French in spectacular style. A brilliant strategist, he changed forever the approach to conventional war. He realised that the aims and objectives of an army at war could not be achieved without effective command and control, logistics, and effective communications. He believed that strategy was a 'system of expedients', that is to say, once the direction and vision has been set, the objectives are arranged in order after a distinct method, and achieved by means appropriate to the purpose in hand.

He embraced the technology of his time with great effect, and to the devastation of his enemies in the Franco Prussian War. He used the railways to coordinate the movement of large elements of his army. He is credited with introducing a testing and exercise regimen for his officers and men, now known as 'War Games' also coining the phrases 'Red' and 'Blue' forces.

A meticulous planner, he believed that the first engagement with the enemy was predictable. Consequently he spent a great deal of time and care developing detailed plans that would guide his army through the early parts of a conflict. He was not a micromanager. He understood that after the initial engagement everything could change, but at this point he relied on the training of his Officers and the men under them, and their understanding of his overall strategy. It was left to them to work out how these were to be achieved.

Moltke was able to take this approach because he believed in leadership with a moral compass. His leadership was based on the concept of duty, service to country, self sacrifice and putting needs of his men before himself. Dwight D. Eisenhower summed up these gifts up perfectly when he said: "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done, because they want to do it". This approach developed powerful imaginative leadership and a highly motivated army.

Put into context, his quote "No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond contact with the enemy’s main strength" makes much more sense, and clearly demonstrates the need for planning. As BCM professionals we do not have Von Moltke’s planning problems on the same scale, but we can learn a great deal from his methods.

In the paper written by Rory F Knight and Deborah J Pretty on 'The Impact of catastrophes on shareholder value' you will see that "Effective management of the consequences of catastrophes would appear to be a more significant factor than whether catastrophe insurance hedges the economic impact of the catastrophe".

It is also clear that effective leadership in the early stages of a disruption plays a significant part in whether an organisation will recover or not.

An organisation with a clear BCM strategy, defined objectives, careful planning, relevant training, and inspirational leadership is more likely to succeed and survive a crisis. As John F Kennedy said: "There are risks and costs to a programme of action. But they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction".

John Ball AFBCI is the Business Continuity Coordinator at Sussex and Surrey Police.