I’ve advised every entrepreneur with whom I’ve ever worked to develop a business plan. But I never expect that the path to success outlined in such plans will ever be precisely followed. Some people say that a business plan is a blueprint for the organization. Nah, I don’t think so. I see the business plan as a starting point. I’m convinced that some businesses fail because the entrepreneur hews too closely to the plan. He or she fails to recognize the little signs along the way that point to major pitfalls for which a deviation is warranted . . . or enormous opportunities that will be missed due to a blind devotion to “the plan.”
The notion behind the business plan should be to organize our thoughts around a concept. That concept is actually the Vision, or what it looks like when we get there. An organized process for achieving the vision is extremely important for without it we find ourselves all over the map and failing to make any tangible progress. One of the problems for many entrepreneurs is working too much “in” the business rather than “on” the business. They become bogged down in the organized process tending to minor details best left to others. And weeks, months or even years later they look up and realize that the vision is still a distant fuzzy form way out in the distance. They are the victims of “straight-line thinking.”
Every organization needs some straight-line thinkers and doers. If not for them, there would be sheer chaos all the time. But straight-line thinking is not the job for the entrepreneur. The entrepreneur continually works to bring that “fuzzy form in the distance” into sharp focus. He or she realizes that there will be obstacles along the way and works to anticipate them and determine the path around, under or over. The straight-line thinker runs into the obstacles and is stopped – maybe permanently.
Straight-line systems and processes are critical. That said, they should be periodically reviewed and modified as necessary to meet the continually changing needs of the business. It’s the strategies that must be nimble and flexible. The simplest analogy is that of a car driving down the road. We are going from Temecula to Tucumcari which is nearly a straight 1,000-mile shot across I-40. Just west of Flagstaff the highway construction signs begin to appear – Road Closed Ahead. And the next thing we know there’s a detour on West Route 66 through Flagstaff. We follow the detour and a few miles later we’re back on I-40 on our way to Tucumcari, no worse for the wear. Easy peasy – right? The problem in the entrepreneurial world is that the detours are not so straightforward. Sometimes it’s a challenge to even know that there’s a need for a detour.
Exactly how do we decide when to be flexible with “the plan?” The answer is . . . always! We need to pay a great deal of attention to our customers and understand what they want and need. If we don’t, we may miss subtle signals that inform us that their preferences are shifting. We must stay abreast of what our competition is doing and especially how demand for our products and services might be changing. If a competitor is quickly garnering more market share, we had better know it and be prepared to react accordingly. It’s equally critical that we stay plugged in to the regulatory environment at all governmental levels. Understanding early in the game that a proposed set of rules or new laws could adversely impact our business gives us a chance to re-tool our operation to minimize the downside. And, we must have a constant pulse on the status of our team. Are our team members feeling fulfilled? Is their compensation in line with the work they are doing and the results they are producing? Again, if we aren’t mindful of our team, we’ll be caught flatfooted when someone jumps ship at a time we least expect it. Finally, while keeping our head down and putting one foot in front of the other, we may miss a golden opportunity that was unanticipated and could accelerate our sales and punch-up our bottom line in a major way.
Look, I’m all about focus and paying attention to the details. But as entrepreneurs, sometimes by following the straight-line path we’ll walk right into the mouth of a hungry grizzly bear. To thrive and prosper we use our business plan as a starting point; develop a strong set of systems and processes; but are nimble and flexible with the strategies we deploy that deliver us to our ultimate vision.
This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.