Those who have worked with me have undoubtedly heard me say that “a business plan is good for only the first 10 minutes.” The reason is that once execution starts, business leaders learn new things that cause them to consider deviating from the original plan. The reason for planning is not necessarily only to attain an outcome, but to launch a process. Formulating a plan establishes a framework to assimilate new information, which then might lead us to alter the plan.
Recently, a brief posting on Harvard Business Review’s HBR Weekly Hotlist (“Building a Flexible Business Plan,” April 4) addressed this very issue. The posting stated that in planning, business leaders need to take parallel paths of both doing and thinking: not blindly executing the plan and not ignoring facts on the ground. The posting raised the following key points:
- Think big, start small, scale fast: Determine how big the business can realistically be, but don’t assume that it will get there quickly. Invest in a limited way until you see indications that the business has legs, and then have a plan to aggressively scale up.
- Have a framework that includes these four elements: people, a business idea, a business model and a market. Understand the key tradeoffs between these four elements, and keep considering how tradeoffs are working. In my experience, people trump everything else. Attempting to implement good business ideas without good people to execute them is a recipe for disaster. Good people with the right business skills and experience, even if they are executing a mediocre idea, are a better bet than the reverse.
- Keep the plan iterative: Continue to think and rethink the plan as execution commences. Adopt flexible thinking that will enable the organization to adapt and pivot at the appropriate time.
Obviously, there is not a checklist or formula for a foolproof business plan. However, starting with leaders who are good at perceiving and acting on opportunities and challenges during the execution phase is a key factor in developing a successful business.