It is so widely acknowledged that a robust business plan is one of the key ingredients in small business success, it seems remarkable that anyone serious about their business could considerable it optional. For example, Business Link say, “It is essential to have a realistic, working business plan when you’re starting up a business”. A recent survey showed that small businesses were twice as likely to be successful with a written business plan as compared with those without one. The Times in their annual round up of 100 up and coming UK businesses suggest that “poor business planning” is a key reason for failure. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to find an authority that would advocate the opposite idea, a clear signal that this idea is accepted wisdom. Despite this, a recent survey shows that two thirds of small business owners run their businesses on gut instinct alone.
I had a very interesting discussion about this a couple of days ago with a good friend of mine who has run several successful small businesses in which he posited the idea of a “planning gene todaybusinesshub “. He felt that the only possible explanation for the lack of proper planning in small business was genetic.
According to his theory, the majority of people are born without the “planning gene” and this explains why so many people don’t have any written business plan, despite the overwhelming evidence of a high correlation between a robust and vigorously implemented business plan and business success. The majority of us are simply not biologically and genetically wired to plan.
This is certainly one explanation, although I have to say I have a few reservations as to the validity of his theory. I talk with small business owners about planning every day. I’m part of a small business myself. I’ve owned several small businesses over the last ten years each with varying degrees of success. In all those conversations and all that experience, this was the first (semi) serious discussion I’d had about the planning gene.
If I was to aggregate the results of the conversations I have had with actual and prospective customers on this topic, four distinctive strands emerge explaining why small business owners fail to plan. Whilst I have heard a few other explanations for the lack of effective small business planning, I am treating these as outliers and focusing on the most significant.
I’m Too Busy To Plan – More often than not, the small business owners we talk to tell us that proper planning is a luxury that only big business can afford. For them, business planning, if done at all, was a one-time event that produced a document for a bank manager or investor which is now gathering dust in the furthest recesses of some rarely opened filing cabinet. There just aren’t enough hours in the day and if forced to choose, they would do the real, physical work and leave the mental work undone, which seems to be the poor relation at best, if it is even dignified with the status of work at all.
Traditional Planning Doesn’t Work – The “I’m too busy to plan” excuse is often supplemented with this one. I’ve heard the stories of the most legendary construction overrun of all time, The Sydney Opera House, originally estimated to be completed in 1963 for $7 million, and finally completed in 1973 for $102 million, more times than I can remember. Sometimes, this idea is backed up with some actual research, such as the fascinating study by several eminent psychologists of what has been called the “planning fallacy”. It seems that some small business owners genuinely believe that mental work and planning is a bit of a con with no traction on physical reality.
My Business Is Doing Fine Without Detailed Planning – A minority of small business owners we speak to are in the privileged position of being able to say they’ve done pretty well without a plan. Why should they invest time and resources into something they don’t appear to have missed?
Planning Is Futile In A Chaotic World – Every once in a while, we hear how deluded we are to believe that the world can be shaped by our hopes and actions. This philosophical objection to planning is perhaps my favourite. It takes ammunition from a serious debate about the fundamental nature of the universe and uses it to defend what almost always is either uncertainty about how to plan effectively or simple pessimism. This is different from the idea that planning doesn’t work as these business owners have never even tried to form a coherent plan, but have just decided to do the best they can and hope that they get lucky as they are knocked hither and thither like a steel ball in the pinball machine of life.
As with all of the most dangerous excuses, there is a kernel of truth in each of these ideas and I sympathise with those who have allowed themselves to be seduced into either abandoning or failing to adopt the habit of business planning. Most small business owners feel the same dread in relation to business planning as they do to visits to the dentist, so it’s unsurprising that so many simply don’t bother. However, by turning their backs completely on planning, they are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Taking each idea outlined above in turn, I’ll attempt to show why business planning is critical, not just despite that reason but precisely because of that reason.
I’m Too Busy Not To Plan – Time is the scarcest resource we have and it is natural that we would want to spend it doing those things that we believe will have the greatest impact. Of course, we want to spend most of our time producing, but we should also invest at least some time into developing our productive capacity. As Stephen Covey pointed out in his seminal work, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, we should never be too busy sawing to sharpen a blunted saw. Planning is one of the highest leverage activities we can engage in, as when done effectively it enhances the productive capacity of small businesses, enabling them to do more with less. Nothing could be a bigger waste of precious time than to find out too late that we have been using blunt tools in pursuit of our business goals.
If we as small business owners weren’t so busy and time wasn’t so scarce, then we wouldn’t have to make choices about what we did with our time and resources. We could simply pursue every opportunity which presented itself. However, for the busy entrepreneur, the decision to do one thing always has the opportunity cost of not being able to do something else. How can we be certain that our business is going where we want it to go without pausing regularly, scanning the horizon and making sure not only that we are on track but also making sure that we still want to get to where we are heading? I believe more time is wasted in the single-minded pursuit of opportunities that are not right than is wasted by over thinking the opportunity of a lifetime.
In short, small business owners are extremely busy and their time is precious. So much so that to waste it doing the wrong things with the wrong tools would be tragic. Small business owners that cannot afford the luxury of making expensive mistakes simply must regularly sharpen the saw through continuous business planning.
Traditional Planning Doesn’t Work, So We Need a New Approach That Does – There are some fairly large question marks over the effectiveness of traditional business planning techniques. In an age where business models are becoming obsolete in months rather than years, a business plan projecting five years into the future cannot be viewed as gospel. Nobody has a crystal ball and if they did, they probably wouldn’t be writing business plans but using their remarkable predictive powers to some more profitable end.