The nasty truth is: plans tend to be wrong.

All kind of plans:

  • product roadmaps,
  • go-to-market strategies,
  • business plans,
  • marketing action plans.

Some are more and some are less – but all of them are essentially wrong.
A single month passes, sometimes even a week or a day, and your plan gets outdated and useless.

Is it a problem? No, because plans are not expected to be right. Their role is different. In fact it is planning process that matters much more than plans.

The essence of planning under uncertainty

Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.
Winston Churchill

In uncertain environments – like business or product operations in startups – planning has a very specific function.

Obviously, it is here to help us achieve our business goals. However, counter-intuitively, the most important output of planning is not a plan. Especially plan seen as a recipe for success or algorithm to follow.

The problem with plans is that many people want them to model reality and predict future. And that’s a wrong approach cause plans dramatically suck at both (for the reasons that I will describe in a while). Nevertheless, they got another, less obvious function.

Writing a plan is just a tiny achievement on a way to the goal. The key thing is implementation. That’s where the magic happens. And the planning process done right greatly supports successful implementation.

The essential thing about planning is not to create plan, it is to increase likelihood of a successful implementation.

Where awesome story meets reality

A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.
George S. Patton

At first glance it may look like it is enough to be a great narrator to create outstanding plans. Narrators are unmatched when it comes to bold visions, compelling stories and well-designed presentations. They’ve mastered skills which are extremely important in consulting, writing, PR, content marketing, product marketing or… politics.

However, as for a startup leader, being an awesome narrator is simply not enough.

Planning should never be separated from implementation. Because it is the implementation that makes the difference.

Great people from whatever area: arts, business, politics, science or military – were always recognized for what they did, not what they planned or promised.

Now you know why people prefer to narrow planning down to story (narration).

Now you know why people prefer to narrow down planning to narration.

Good planning requires you to balance narration with execution, vision with facts, creativity with analytics, strategy with tactics and operations. It is MUCH MUCH more difficult than just putting some compelling dream on paper.

It is also an ongoing process that do not just happen once at a beginning of the project. Every time we learn something new it should affect our plan.

If I had to choose between great narrator and outstanding executor to join my team, I would always choose the second one (unless we have executors in abundance, which is rarely a case). A good executor will always deliver some results – maybe sub-optimal but still. On the contrary, a narrator without execution skills is more likely to bring no business value or even cause some harm to the organization – due to confusion, insecurity or conflicts that new bold plans often bring.

To sum up, the best plans and planning processes combine great vision with facts – current state, resources, opportunities and risks. Narration is just one of many ingredients of a good plan. Good plan supports successful implementation.

Neverending planning

Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window.
Peter Drucker

It is natural to put planning at the beginning of every project. You define what you need to do and then move to implementation. For very well defined projects where nothing can surprise you – it works pretty well. But not anymore if the area is new or uncertainty is involved (typical situation for startups).

Imagine you want to solve a puzzle. You look at all elements, come up with some potential solutions and try. It doesn’t work so you think once again and try another puzzle. You are not able to plan everything from very beginning. You must iterate.

Iteration means you, in fact, make a little bit of planning at every step.

Of course the initial planning is critical. It is very you choose which approach to take or what tools to use. But on every other step you also have to plan because you get more and more pieces of information. At the beginning you know very little.

Developing plan over time (lean planning) helps you mitigate risks of the traditional approach, including:
1. Assumptions risk
2. Environmental risk
3. Information risk

Practice of planning in uncertain environment

Practice of planning in uncertain environment – traditional planning vs lean planning.

Assumptions risk

Every plan has some assumptions – explicit or implicit. You assume that your users would buy more for lower price, are not satisfied with the current customer support or choose your competitor because of their strong brand. Based on them you design possible solutions and predict what will happen if you act in a certain way.

The big problem with assumptions:
Even though each of them may look very likely to be true, the whole set of assumptions rarely is.

Be careful with assumptions!

Be careful with assumptions!

Let’s see an example. Imagine our plan relies on 5 assumptions. Each of them is very likely and has 80% of being true. What’s the likelihood that all of them will be positively verified?

Plan built on five strong assumptions in 2 out of 3 cases turns wrong

Plan built on five strong assumptions in 2 out of 3 cases turns wrong

Only 33%. In two out of three cases at least one of these hypothesis will turn wrong. Pretty risky for building a 50-page business plan on five strong assumptions, isn’t it?

In reality our plans are built on bigger number of less probable hypotheses, which make entire plan even more doubtful. As a result it makes more sense to try to limit number of assumptions, keep them explicit,  test each of them over time (as in Business Model Canvas) and keep adjusting the plan rather than believe blindly that all of them are right.

Environmental risk

Business and tech environment nowadays is:
1. rapidly changing,
2. complex,
3. unpredictable

These facts makes every plan quickly outdated. Also your ability to predict certain facts like competitor’s move or customers’ reaction is very limited. If you want to make your plan very detailed and accurate you must consider huge number of combinations. Even in chess – relatively simple game in comparison to business ecosystem – there is almost infinite number of possible move combinations (under some assumptions more than all atoms in our universe). Trying to take control over this system is both extremely costly and inefficient.

In the lean planning you learn more about the environment over the time. You play with the system but trying some small steps and see how it reacts. If it works well it is safe to scale it up. Knowing more let’s you adjust the plan as you go (sometimes it requires you to completely re-create your plan).

Information risk

Planning traditionaly rely on external sources – like reports, stats, case studies or opinions. Such information is useful but have very low cognitive value in comparison to what you can learn in practice – by running experiments.

External reports rely on data collected and processed in a special context – in specific timeframe, industry, region and technology. You also cannot be certain about analytical methods that were applied. Even one different factor in this set can make these data completely incomparable to your current situation.

On the other hand – when you stay within your environment by experiments, collect feedback, observe your users – you can get much more accurate information. At the beginning of the project you got very limited access to this kind of information. Over time – as you progress and keep learning – much better.

The better information you use on input, the better output you get.

Benefits of planning

Plans are nothing, planning is everything.
Dwight Eisenhover

The huge benefits of planning are not related to the plan itself. Thanks to planning you effectively communicate your goals with your and other teams, build common understanding across the organisation, gather valuable feedback and excercise before moving to implementation. All these things have indirect, yet very powerful influence on the success of your project.