Helmuth von Moltke was a German field marshal, otherwise known as Moltke the Elder. His contribution to military (and, by extension, business) thinking lay in his belief in developing a series of options for battle instead of a single plan. Moltke is reported as saying “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength.” That is all a bit formal for modern language so has been reframed as “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”

In a business setting, Moltke’s quote is well applied. Essentially what it says is that you can have every intention and plan under the sun, but when push comes to shove, those plans often go out the window when confronted by the reality of the situation.

I’ve been thinking of old Moltke, as it relates to most businesses’ theme du jour, that of reducing their environmental footprint. It could be a genuine desire to tread more lightly, or simply a response to society determining that to secure a social license, enterprises need to start to internalize their impacts. Whatever the reasoning behind it, pretty much every organisation today, even those whose business models unashamedly involve raping the earth’s natural resources, have some kind of statement that talks about treading lightly.

But the push really comes to shove when those organisations are faced with external challenges. When business leaders are going into literal or metaphorical battles, all of those hand-wringing statements about doing good, sometimes go out the window.

I was thinking about these tradeoffs the other day when out and about on my Level 4 local run. As I was running along a particular area, I couldn’t help but notice a certain type of detritus that old Moltke would never have had to contend with: dozens of disposable facemasks which had been… disposed of in the worst possible way.

In the early days of Coronovairus, there was much anguish about the lack of PPE available in New Zealand. The solution came from a few heroes of the day, who ironically made their millions decimating the environment by producing millions of crappy plastic toys in low-cost economies that, I suspect, have less than stellar environmental records. Anyway, said “heroes” chartered a few aeroplanes, leveraged their supply chains and imported gazillions of disposable masks and gowns. Problem averted, one would think.

Now I absolutely accept that in the heat of the battle as it were, decisions need to be made that sometimes have unpalatable side effects. But we have, as Moltke would have put it, moved on from the initial response to an attack. We are now in a situation where our response is one more akin to “business as usual.” As such, we need to start thinking on a systems basis around the total impacts of keeping our communities safe.

It’s time to think about whether, in fact, throwing away hundreds of thousands of disposable masks, gloves and gowns a day is the right thing to do or whether there is a less impactful way of keeping safe. Clearly, our first priority is safety, and for many situations, disposable items are, unfortunately, the best option.

But I also suspect that for some applications, we now have options that have less deleterious impacts (be they social or environmental). It’s an issue that is close to my heart on a number of fronts. I’m chair of The Akina Foundation, a charitable organisation that leads the way in trumpeting the benefit to society of businesses being run on a “for impact” basis. Akina is at the forefront of what is today called “social enterprises” – organisations that, as well as making a financial benefit, also operate in a way that is beneficial for people and the planet.

This idea of products that have a lifespan beyond a few minutes or hours is also the raison d’etre of Cactus Outdoor, my business that for nearly thirty years has been making stuff to last. It’s why we designed a reusable and washable facemask that uses a filter beyond the oft-mentioned N95 level.

Old Moltke was all about being able to both react quickly to changing situations, but also being able to take a longer-view look at the world. In the context of our new Coronavirus challenges, that means being able to respond quickly, but in a way that balances safety and the economy, the environment and the people who live within it. Something that Moltke would be pretty happy about, I think.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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