12 Guiding Principles for Business Success – No.9 – Learn to value thinking and planning as much as action

You are a person of action – right?

Chances are that your response to that question is a clear and empathic ‘Yes’.  You know that success in business is about outcomes, and outcomes only happen in response to action, you know that you need to make things happen. Now that’s very true, but that top level logic hides a slightly deeper truth, unless your actions are planned and thought through they may not lead to the outcomes you are seeking, worse, they could lead you in totally the wrong direction.  So guiding principal number 9 is a simple call to take account of the need to think and plan;

Learn to value thinking and planning as much as action

  • Allow yourself time to think and to plan
  • But don’t over plan!

Successful people never appear to be doing nothing – or do they?

We live in a culture that values action, the very term we use for regular day to day business activity ‘work’ is a verb, a doing word. So the received wisdom is that if you are working then you need to be doing something. This is often translated as a need to be obviously and visibly active and apparently engaged in tasks all the time, to always be ‘doing stuff’.

In contrast though, thought is an apparently passive activity. Nobody can see your thoughts, we are not equipped with the equivalent of a hard drive busy light that can blink away and enable those around us to see when we are busy mentally processing information, juggling thoughts and concepts or thinking and planning.  The problem with simply thinking is that you can outwardly appear to be doing nothing, the very antithesis of the popular model of the always doing stuff, driving actions and delivering outcomes driven entrepreneur.

I was once had a colleague half-jokingly accuse me of having done nothing all morning.  I enquired what led them to this conclusion, “You have been sat back in your chair staring at the ceiling, you have not touched your laptop, or lifted the phone or anything”.  Hmmm I said, well what if I told you I was thinking.  More to the point, what if I told you that I was thinking about how the bonus scheme for staff in your department could be improved. He beat a hasty retreat.

It’s a minor anecdote of course, but it did happen and it does demonstrate how our culture, and I think many corporate cultures, tend to value activity, or at least the appearance and perception of activity, over quality of thinking and planning.  Personally I can’t help but think that if we allowed ourselves more time for quality thinking, then that may just lead to better quality planning and better overall business outcomes.

The merits of planning

We are all familiar with those little buzz phrases that remind us of the need to plan, possibly the best known being Benjamin Franklin’s famous “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”.  Although my personal favorite is the paraphrase of the conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” We would probably all accept though that effective planning is the logical prerequisite to effective action.

But the most often overlooked aspect of upholding the value of planning is taking account of the quality of that planning. Business plans are the classic example, much energy appears to be devoted to producing lengthy documents that are frequently better measured in weight then actual usefulness. I generally say that if you cannot summarize the essential points of your business plan in less than two sides of A4 paper then you probably have a fairly complex business on your hands.

What counts here is the quality of planning and by logical extension the quality of thought that has gone into it. Sometimes that process can be massively aided by having more than one person contribute to it. Having a good board or advisory board that can assist with that strategy and planning process and getting your plans exposed to the intellectual stress testing of a good board can add massive value. That’s all part of taking a robust approach to thinking and planning.

But don’t over plan

The danger of devoting too much effort to planning is of course that you never get around to the doing bit. Diligent, well thought out plans are great, done well they should point you in the right direction and be a framework to guide activity and define goals and outcomes.  One of the big risks though is ‘Analysis paralysis’, where so much time and effort is devoted to gathering and analyzing data that nothing happens. The other risk is over planning to the exclusion of all external input, you plan to make the product in blue, and so you make the product in blue, ignoring the fact that customers actually want it in white because that does not fit in with your plan!  Hands up if you have ever witnessed that kind of overzealous adherence to the plan.

Allow yourself time to think and to plan

So whatever you do, don’t skimp on taking the time you need to think about your business, your market, your customers, your value proposition, your competitors. Make sure you apply as much quality thinking as you can, deploy other smart and suitably experienced minds to help you where appropriate. If it will help then by all means embed and embody that thinking in a business plan. But make sure your business plan is a document that works for you and one you can revisit and change easily, just in case your thinking and your plans change!

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