No Battle Plan Survives First Contact With The Enemy

That is a photo of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. He was the Chief of Staff of the Prussian army before World War 1.

Meet Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. He was the Chief of Staff of the Prussian army before World War 1.

The true reason for his stone face is the long exposure time of the Daguerreotype. But I prefer to interpret his melancholy as a product of challenges he faced in the 1880’s as a military strategist forced to adapt to a new reality.

At the time he was drawing up battle plans, war was forever changed by technology innovation. The quantity of possible human devastation per dollar invested in weaponry was rapidly increasing. The advent of machine guns and large heavy artillery made it impossible to methodically plan for war like Napoleon would have just decades before. War was no longer about men in bright red pants lining up in a field and firing muskets. Brutal war machines now dominated the battlefield. The armies firing them were 10 times more massive. The use of trains to move troops caused everything to happen in double speed.

The complexity and velocity of this new breed of warfare reduced the probability of a plan predicting reality to near-zero. The laminar had suddenly become the turbulent.

Moltke was classically trained in military strategy. He studied Napoleon. He loved war strategy so much that he believed that war literally “imbued humanity with purpose.” The fact that his skillsets weren’t working anymore was deeply disturbing. He summed this up best with his now famous quote:

“No business plan survives first contact with customers.”

Whoops that was another person. Moltke said:

“No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

This insight sparked Moltke’s development of a new Theory of War that would actually function in this turbulent new type of warfare. Moltke wanted to evolve beyond deterministic battle plans in favor of resilient strategies that could adapt to real battle situations as they occurred.

Armies as Adaptive Systems

In pursuing this theory he correctly realized that the enormous size of modern armies made it impossible for a single leader to control every detail of their force’s tactics. He knew that mid-level generals would have to be trusted to act independently in service of the overall mission. At the onset of a campaign, he provided generals directives that stated his overall intentions instead of disseminating detailed tactical plans.

Moltke’s plan favored independent thinking and decentralized leadership over unquestioning execution of a top-down plan. Call it the “Put a Man on the Moon” strategy, or even “purpose coherence.” Every element (the general) of the system knows exactly what the purpose (move through Belgium) of what the system is. This allowed generals to craft their own battle tactics to achieve the broader directives. To Moltke, armies were adaptive networks of human relationships, not machines.

Aside: How ironic that the moment in history that mechanical war machines change the landscape of war forever, the organizational model of “armies as machines” no longer becomes relevant.

Purpose coherence allowed generals the flexibility to contextualize battle plans to the local situation while staying aligned with the overall campaign’s objectives. This coherence of the local and global objectives helped armies stay on the same page when Plan A inevitably failed.

Properly understood, an adaptive organization accomplishes its purpose by using self-learning and iteration to converge on a configuration ideally suited to its unique environment.


In times of economic challenge like the 2008 financial crises, organizations without a resilient structure simply collapse. We’ve also seen this in industry-specific disruptions like digital music streaming, cloud computing, and online education. Like war, these moments are wildfires. They clear away non-resilient systems and leave only the adaptable to thrive.

Humans are by far the most advanced learning entities on earth. We are exceptional at adapting to change as new information is made available. The fundamental building blocks of all organizations are people. If people are not the source of organizational rigidity, the root cause must be the nature of the internal human relationships.

Moltke was successful not because he found the best soldiers, but because the interactions between the members of his army nurtured trust and independent thinking.

Why This Matters

Adversity in life, the economy, and war always selects for certain characteristics. The organizations that grow back after layoffs or recessions are the resilient ones.

Organizations scaffold our lives. They determine what cities we live in, what time we wake up, and the type of work that we do. They are the environments within which we do our work. Recessions kill micromanagers. Disruption redistributes people to the resilient organizations that remain or emerge afterwards. The ones where great work is possible.

Today, nothing is laminar. The only types of organizations that will survive will be ones that trust their people and encourage independent thinking.