There was a time, a few decades ago, when I thought sticking to the plan was a good for business. “Because that’s the plan” seemed like a good thing. But I’ve changed my mind.
Having a plan is absolutely a good thing. And sticking to the planning process — which means regularly checking results, evaluating progress, and revising a plan — is absolutely a good thing too. But sticking to a plan? Just because it’s supposedly something people do? No.
Years ago, I was one of four friends taking a two-week road trip in Europe. We were young, single and having fun. Three of us were fairly flexible about things, so if we liked one spot we’d want to stay there longer; if we didn’t like another, we’d want to take off early. But the fourth always wanted to stick to the plan. And that was such a pain. We’d made the plan before we left, and our trip meant learning. I remember the arguments: he’d say “but we have a plan” and we’d say “but when we made the plan we didn’t know what we do now.”
Fast forward to today and the first thing we can all see is that business time frames have changed. Business moves faster than it used to. And the business landscape has changed too. There’s still a lot of consolidation at the top, and those huge enterprises need to manage longer-term plans in order to be able to steer. But there’s also huge fragmentation at the bottom, too, with more than 20 million U.S. companies having no employees, and six or so small businesses, and they move faster. They have to.
So assumptions change very quickly. And that, to my mind, is the key to managing a business plan and keeping it useful.
First, do a plan that has concrete specifics you can track. Include not just the obvious numbers for sales, costs, and expenses, but also other manageable numbers like web traffic, visits, leads, presentations, calls, downloads, likes, mentions, updates, and whatever else drives your business.
Second, set a regular schedule for reviewing plan vs. actual results. Have a monthly task to look at progress and identify problems.
Third, learn to distinguish problems of execution from changed assumptions. If assumptions have changed, then the plan should change. If assumptions still hold true, then the difference between plan and actual results is a matter of execution. React to surprises according to what direction they go and what cause and effect you see. Usually, unexpectedly good results are a good reason to look at shifting resources towards the positive; unexpectedly bad results are a good reason to shift resources to correct a problem.
And that’s what I call the good side of sticking to a plan: have a plan, review it regularly, and revise it as needed. It’s way easier to correct your course if you have a plan than if you’re just reacting to whatever happened yesterday.
(Image courtesy of stockphoto.com)