Why plan when you simply don’t know?

If the days of the plan are dead, here’s why it’s worth bothering

October and the end of year is galloping towards me. 2018 will be here tomorrow.

I’ve a board meeting today and top of the agenda is the presentation and approval of our business plan.

I am going to share a little secret with you. The only reason I started writing a business plan was because we’re seeking funding for a super exciting project and investors needed to see a business plan. So my team and I wrote one.

Leadership Trust has been around for 40 years, so we’re clearly doing something right and I’ve been CEO for 9 months so pressure on to make good strides under my watch. The value of the planning exercise is not just to present our company to external people but for me and my team to get to know each other and understand if we share similar beliefs. The plan hasn’t really helped us make business decisions, but what it has done is give us a boost because when I look at it, we really know what we’re doing and what we can achieve for our clients.

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do”

When we kicked off the plan this Michael Porter quote stuck with me. In our language this translates as freedom within constraints.

If I’m honest, writing this plan has been more box ticking rather than a strategic exercise. A lot of the stuff in there is finger in the air, because there is no possible way that I can plan precisely what’s going to happen next week, let alone next year. The key is to be ready for the unexpected and unpredictable that may be to our advantage or may set us back. Who knows? Either way, we’ll handle it with elegance.

Whilst I believe in having a clear goal, doing the numbers and milestones to check if we’re heading in the right direction at the right pace, the rest is speculation. We would like things to happen as we plan them, but this simply isn’t going to happen. Our mindset is ready to embrace the unknown; antennae tuned into market sentiment; peripheral vision alert to approaching weather.

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future”. JFK

If I look back on the year that has flown by, I set out to do a number of things. Some things I’d envisaged never happened, but were replaced with opportunities which presented themselves or that we engineered without a guaranteed outcome.

Our year has turned out pretty spectacularly. It certainly hasn’t been easy thanks to my boss who is keen to teach me business the experiential way (“until you’ve had the sleepless nights, you don’t know what business is about”). So even though what we’ve actually done is quite different to what we set out to do, it doesn’t mean we’ve failed. On the contrary, our ability to flex is a necessity.

One of the greatest perils of planning is how it can be used against you. How planning can become a straightjacket to creativity, an anchor dictating a fixed narrow mindset and how agility, a vital attribute, can be seen as failure.


Four human factors that make a plan more likely to succeed

I’ve learnt a lot from this planning process and it’s got nothing to do with numbers. Business soothsayers constantly remind us plans have a 70% failure rate. Hit search and you’ll receive a deluge of ten point plans, rough guides and golden rules from the freelance to Forbes. So when a plan is pointless what value does it provide?

Whatever the terrain, you need more than a plan. You need a winning mindset. Plans are designed for heads not hearts, investors rather than innovators. We need a new language for a business plan, that’s more emotive because whatever it’s called, four factors that determine a good plan are unsurprisingly about feelings, not facts:

  • Is everyone emotionally engaged in the goal?
  • Are we tuned into our customers’ needs?
  • Do we have the right team in place?
  • Are we communicating well?

So, before you reach for a spreadsheet, remember planning needs the right brain first, because as we steam into 2018, everyone needs to love the don’t know, more than ever. After all, who doesn’t like surprises? Well, accountants mostly!


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