Zsa Zsa Gabor once said that:”Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans”. Or was it John Lennon? I always get those two mixed-up. But the sentiment of the quote is clear – your best laid plans usually disappear down the pan faster than the time it takes for a coherent thought to leave Sarah Palin’s head. A small percentage of people do end up realizing their dreams via a strictly adhered to life plan, but most end up in situations they’d never conceived of at the beginning of life’s journey. But while we accept that it’s difficult – and maybe pointless – to try and intricately plan out every detail of our life, this is not the case in business. Businesses – especially corporations – are obsessed with plans. Short, mid, long – any kind of term you can think of – they want a plan for it. And here’s why this approach is completely wrong.
The short version is that plans are nothing but guesses. Humans are notoriously horrendous at predicting the future. Authors, film-makers, “gurus”, cable news talking heads, scientists, historians, economists, that crazy guy who hangs around the train station on Saturday evening…….they’re all essentially useless at predictions. This is not a slight against individuals, but rather commentary on us as a species. Early humans had no evolutionary need to understand where the world would be in 5 years, simply because getting enough food to survive the next 5 hours was more pressing to our survival. We’re a short-term species with short-term brains. We don’t recognize crises until we’re on the brink of catastrophe. From the melting of the polar ice caps to the idea that we’re running out of oil, you can bet that humanity won’t do anything meaningful until the VERY last minute. But that’s a subject for another post.
Yet in the field of business, plans rule. There’s the 12 month plan. Then the 3 year plan. THEN…..if you’re trying to squeeze a few investment dollars from the corporate finance group, my favorite – the 5 year plan. I can assure you that if ANY human had the ability to predict – even with a remote level of accuracy – where a business would be in 5 years, they would not be diddling their time away as a middle manager at a corporation. That’s because nobody CAN do it.
Plans are generally pure fantasy. A combination of wishful thinking and elaborate guesswork that are designed to make everybody feel better that the appropriate level of thinking has gone into a new initiative. They’re the equivalent of the life vest under the seat of the 747. You can guarantee that if that Jumbo Jet smashed down into the Atlantic the life vest would be all but useless, but just knowing it’s there silently reassures us.
But for something that’s so useless, we spend a ridiculous amount of time doing it. Plans are not easy to create. They generally involve bloated spreadsheets with bloated accompanying decks. Then they have to be reviewed by the boss/finance person who often announce that they’re not happy with your guesses and would like you to insert some of their own guesses instead. And since their guesses are clearly more valuable and accurate than your guesses, you head back to the drawing board. Weeks slip by. Then months. I’ve actually seen a whole year drift away, consumed by the relentless black hole of “planning”. And all that productive time has been thrown away on creating nicely formatted cells in a nicely formatted spreadsheet.
Back in the mid 2000s one of my favorite questions that I was frequently asked was “How much traffic do you expect this new Web site to get in 12 months time”. The question, of course, is impossible to answer. I can tell you how much traffic I’d LIKE to get in 12 months. I can tell you how much traffic previous sites that I’ve worked on got in 12 months. But there are literally so many variables at play – both known and unknown – that to accurately predict this would be akin to guessing how many ants I’ll find crawling across my deck in July.
But I had to answer. Yet I knew – and the IT hierarchy knew – that however I answered would be bad for me. If I answered too low, I’d immediately be accused of “not thinking big enough”. In addition, if we performed better than expected and the surge in traffic caused performance issues with the site, it would be my problem for not adequately warning people about the volume of demand. But answer too high, and suddenly you’re chasing a wildly large number and will be obsessed in meeting this single, unrealistic short-term goal.
In many cases the hardest part of execution is actually getting started. But actually starting something is far more valuable than asking 15 accountants to create 15 different scenarios of where you might be in 2048. If you have a good idea with a clear hook and a sense of how to engage people, you’re much better off beginning to create something than you are debating whether the CPM rate four years from now should be $6 or $7. The beauty of the Web is that it’s a fast, nimble, flexible medium. It’s an environment where you can test and learn. Real-time, actionable data is at your fingertips and can give you the right intelligence to craft your product accordingly.
I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t think ahead, or have goals that you want to hit. But to paraphrase
Zsa Zsa – Lennon- “Life can pass you by while you’re busy making plans”. It’s true for business too.