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Planning and the Entrepreneur

Last fall (Nov 9, 2009), there was a provocative posting in The New York Times titled “Why Don’t All Entrepreneurs Write Business Plans?” The author, Scott Shane, reviewed the literature and summarized some theories. Worth reading, but even more interesting to me were some of the comments:

  • “A business plan is never finished, so at what point while writing one do you actually begin? That has been my challenge.”
  • “[Entrepreneurs] feel their time is better spent working hard and putting in long hours to ensure the business succeeds.”
  • “Honestly the concept of a business plan confuses me, unless it is used in search of seed capital. If it isn’t, what good is a plan?”

Each of these comments reveals a misunderstanding of the basic process of business. Business is about managing continuous change. It never stops. That leaves you with two choices: floundering in a sea of chaos (reacting), or staying mindful of your goal and making regular course corrections (proacting).

The business plan is never finished? Well of course! Business is never finished. The plan is a snapshot at a point in time. It should be developed with full awareness that it will be obsolete the moment it’s finished. But by exercising the discipline of identifying the key issues and selecting the key strategies that will drive success based on today’s conditions, you will have a clear understanding of what needs to be adjusted when conditions change tomorrow.

Time better spent working hard to ensure success? I used to have a pet rat that worked real hard running in a wheel. It never got anywhere. I’ve found that managers who regularly get off the treadmill to take a long view of their business are the ones who succeed long term. And are happier. And get more done.

No specific purpose for the exercise? That’s missing the point. The purpose is to provide purpose. A good plan identifies goals and shows how all the pieces fit together. A good plan helps employees understand how their efforts contribute to the whole. Teams become stronger. The company ceases to be about the whims of the management and becomes about working together for a greater good.

Now, do companies frequently misuse business plans? Absolutely. They treat the plan as written in stone. Instead of becoming an enabler of nimble change, the plan becomes a straitjacket. Or they overwork it, take it down to the tiniest detail, forgetting that conditions change. They spend way too much time chiseling a masterpiece, then feel stuck with it.

I once worked for a mid-sized company that turned the business plan into religion. Months were spent building and collating vast spreadsheets, as if the sums of numbers based on assumptions about assumptions were Truth. Of course it was way too complex to revisit all those assumptions as the year unfolded, so there was a blind focus on the plan’s metrics and how to achieve them rather than what should be done to manage to actual conditions (always different from the original assumptions).

So yes, business planning, like any tool, can be misused. But I believe that virtually any organization can achieve superior results with a balanced planning process build around proper expectations.

As Stephen Covey says, to be effective you need to be proactive, begin with the end in mind, and put first things first. That’s what building a business plan is about. It takes you out of reactive mode, identifies the watch-outs, sets the goals, and outlines the steps.

And one more thing: today’s plan is only a plan. Expect reality to be different. Be nimble. Keep the plan simple enough that revisiting it is simple.

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