Is Planning Damaging Your Business?

Office_job__stressful_job_by_FriXedAirwave“Planning is guessing”, say Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson in their book ReWork – Planning can be not just a waste of time, but a detriment to business, they argue. I read this and shuddered. Perhaps I’d gone into the wrong profession. Perhaps planning and goals setting put a straitjacket on clients, instead of freeing them as they should.

“Unless you’re a fortune teller, long-term business planning is a fantasy…Writing a plan makes you feel in control of things you can’t actually control.” Ouch.

They go on, “Plans are inconsistent with improvisation… You have to be able to pick up opportunities that come along. Sometimes you need to be able to say – we’re going in a new direction because that’s what makes sense today… You have the most information when you’re doing something, not before you’ve done it.”

This felt like such a threat to coaching that I was tempted to dispel it out of hand. Thankfully I value open-mindedness and my eye was caught by the Seth Godin quote on the cover: “Ignore this book at your peril.”

ReWork makes a good case against long-term strategizing. If you are blinkeredly set on following a plan, laid out sometime in the past, you risk lose flexibility and all sense of reality.  In business we need to be in touch with what’s happening right now and constantly asking what’s the most important thing that needs to happen.

I’d just read Michael E. Gerber’s The E-myth Revisited, one of the most highly acclaimed and readable business books on the market. Carried away with inspiration I’d made headway in developing not just a business plan, but a chunky operations manual to boot. Gerber had inspired me to plan in detail the company structure and job descriptions way in advance of me needing to recruit staff. Now it felt like I was being told to throw it all away.  “It’s OK to wing it,” write Fried and Hansson, “Just get on a plane and go. You can pick up a nicer shirt, shaving cream, and a tooth-brush once you get there.”

Gerber’s system-heavy approach has earned him the title of the world’s no.1 small business guru. His company boasts that it is “devoted to helping tens of thousands of business clients, in 145 countries, in virtually every industry and certainly in every economy, [to] help their businesses explode with growth, order, and productivity.” 37signals, the software company, founded by Fried and two others, is an international success story, with more than 3 million customers worldwide. How could such diametrically opposed approaches to planning create equally impressive results?

The answer, came to me as I read about another software company, Valve, the creators of Half Life. Appearing to fly in the face of Gerber’s advice Valve has no company structure. It is a ‘flat company’ with no bosses and no job descriptions. Projects are not planned. If someone believes there is a customer need they can fulfil they recruit colleagues onto the project. If they get a big enough response the project goes ahead. If they don’t – it doesn’t.

At first Valve looks like all out anarchy, with all the flexibility that Fried and Hansson celebrate. On closer inspection, though, it becomes clear that the anarchy and flexibility only work because they have been carefully designed to do so. Reading about the dynamism of Valve reminds me of another great software company, Apple.

jobs-apple-1When Steves Jobs and Wozniak founded Apple they didn’t set out to bring the mouse, the i-pod, the i-pad and i-tunes to consumers. At that time there was no way they could have predicted the products or the customer needs they fulfil, especially as most of their customers didn’t even know they had those needs themselves. What Apple planned and created was the environment for innovation.

Apple’s vision was summarised by Jobs in the 1980s, “Man is the creator of change in this world. As such he should be above systems and structures, and not subordinate to them.”

Valve’s systems for creating an innovative environment, may not be orthodox, but they have clearly been carefully planned and executed, in a manner, of which I’m sure Michael Gerber would approve, and with ‘man’ clearly above them. They are specifically designed to create an environment where the customer is put first, where employees can be honest with one another and where they have the right to say, “no.” They include, to my joy, a number of good coaching questions that employees are guided to ask themselves:

Of all the projects currently under way, what’s the most valuable thing I can be working on?

Which project will have the highest direct impact upon our customers? How much will the work I ship benefit them?

Is Valve not doing something that it should be doing?

What’s interesting? What’s rewarding? What leverages my individual strengths the most?

And they’re all beautifully documented in the Valve Handbook For Employees.

There’s an organic nature to the way Valve evolves, reminiscent of the way Gore Associates ‘cells’ divide when there are more than 150 people working within them (see Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point). But even organisms have to adhere to the laws of physics. Systems lay down those laws.

Some planning may be necessary then, but should we throw long-term planning out the window? “Why don’t we just call plans what they really are: guesses. Start referring to your business plans as business guesses, your financial plans as financial guesses, and your strategic plans as strategic guesses. Now you can stop worrying about them as much. They just aren’t worth the stress.” So say Fried and Hansson. Though I agree that it’s beneficial to reduce stress and get ourselves into more resourceful states, plans don’t have to be set in stone and they don’t have to be used to put pressure on us.

Long-term goals can keep us motivated, help us see the bigger picture and help us to remember what all our hard-work is for. That doesn’t mean they can’t be changed. We must constantly ask how relevant our goals are. It’s true that planning cannot put us in control of exterior circumstances, but it can help us predict and feel prepared for a number of obstacles, so we can be more pro-active than reactive.

And here’s what all these successful companies have in common: whether they have long-term strategic plans or not they all have customers’ needs at their heart; they have clear values, a clear mission and vision; they know who they are and the benefits they aim to give the customers they serve.

To find out how effective coaching can help you do just that please do get in touch. I’m always happy to have an informal chat.

Office Stress image by FriXedAirwave

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