(Note: this is from my business plans coaching column this month at Entrepreneur.com. I’m reposting it here, with permission, for convenience of our BIG blog readers. Tim.)
Plans are wrong, but nonetheless vital. There’s a paradox for you. It’s a simple statement, one that I hope is somewhat surprising coming from a business planning expert; but it’s still very important. And it gets right to the heart of what business planning is all about.
More than ever, those who plan look to projections that often miss the mark. Nobody I know, and in fact nobody I’ve even heard about, accurately predicted the sharp plunge in the economy last fall. So of course those who actually use a business planning process are implementing a lot of course corrections, reviews and revisions.
It’s a great example of how this paradoxical statement — plans are wrong, but nonetheless vital — makes sense. As we look at the year to come, most of us are dialing down our forecasts. Does that mean we wasted our time making them? Not at all. How do we even make sense of where we are if we don’t have a map that shows us how we got there?
If you had a plan earlier this year and results differed greatly from what was expected, I hope you’re taking the time to compare those results, in detail, to the earlier plan. Look for where the differences were greatest. Look for where expenses were tied to sales. Look for the bright spots where sales held up. Look for how the numbers were supposed to come together, and not just how they didn’t.
And if you didn’t have a plan, then think of this as a good time to get a planning process started so you have a better view of your business in the future. Start making simple sales and expense projections. Don’t worry that they’re wrong; just make sure you go back each month and plot where and how and in which direction they were wrong so you can correct them.
You should only be wrong a month at a time, and as you use that plan-vs.-results analysis to look more closely at how things are going, you adjust again and improve results for the next time around. With each month, your grasp on reality gets better.
And then, as things go back up — and they will — you’ll be able to use what you learned to see the signs, anticipate and act accordingly.
This kind of planning process is what’s meant by the phrase, “The plan may be wrong, but planning is essential.” Then there’s another old military saying: “No battle plan ever survived the first encounter with the enemy.” What does happen, though, with battle plans as well as business plans, is you don’t know how to recover or how to adjust the plan if you didn’t have a plan in the first place.
President and Founder
Palo Alto Software