Is your plan just a placebo?

Plans have a huge credibility problem. For large part of recorded history, they have always had this problem. With all the advancements we have made in estimations, forecasting, scheduling, risk management and planning, our execution still continues to challenge us, at times even confound us. It almost makes one feel that real doers don’t plan, they just do it! Or, putting it in more bluntly, a project plan is at best a reference, a guide, maybe even a map – just like Eisenhower said “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable” – but never the single, eternal source of truth that is much-needed for you to face the battle? If that is true, does it mean that the project gets done irrespective of the plan? Despite the plan? What if your plan was not so accurate and detailed, but more like “just do it” – would you still do just as fine? Does it mean that execution is really the most important part of the whole puzzle?

So, is your plan just a placebo?

Every business school and startup mentoring clinic would tell you that you need to have a business plan, or at least some business plan to get started (well, some of the good ones like Ycombinator will tell you that you don’t need a business plan), and yet every entrepreneur would tell you, as the German military strategist and Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder famously said, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. All the romantic visions of a rosy future of millions of customers with wallet full of greenbacks thronging your ecommerce website come crashing down when the first assumptions turn out to a sand castle, and after that, it is just responding to the events, setbacks, challenges and opportunities in real-time, ad nauseam.

Bill Hewlett said this about HP’s early days

When I talk to business schools occasionally, the professor of management is devastated when I say we didn’t have any plans when we started. The idea of having a business came before our invention of the audio oscillator. We were just opportunistic. We did anything to bring in a nickel. We made a bowling alley foul-line indicator, a clock drive for a telescope, a thing to make a urinal flush automatically, and a shock machine to make people lose weight. Here we were, with about $500 in capital, trying whatever someone thought we might be able to do. So we got into this thing not by design but because it worked out that way.

This is from circa ~1937-38. If this story doesn’t convince you because you believe a lot has changed since then, just sample Intel’s business plan from 1968 in this graphic. If no one told you it was Intel’s business plan, you probably won’t give it a second look, let alone fund them. 

Intel Business Plan, 1968It might seem very improbable, but just think about it – they could have written just any other business plan for Intel and yet be equally successful? So, was this piece of paper just meant to sell some dreams to potential investors, or on a lighter note, sell them something that they badly wanted to buy so that we could go out and do what we badly wanted to do without any external interference? Or, is the eventual success all about execution – staying focused on the task at hand and quickly learning what’s working and what’s not while quickly pivoting on stuff that’s working. So, the starting point doesn’t really matter as long as there is a process that allows for being able to get feedback from the market and then quickly iterating through subsequent changes? In that case, the plan becomes a placebo, and because we have been conditioned to believe that a plan is supposed to help us, and hence we end up eventually ‘following’ it in some shape or form? 

Or is the eventual success all about serendipitous luck and a great timing that some are born with, while some others acquire it but most of us don’t have a clue about? It could seem like the case with so many one-trick ponies out there. Take Hotmail. A great success that justifiably rewarded its founders with riches but only never to replicate even a fraction of that original success. People often question if Google is also a one-trick pony? While something like that might/not be a great strategy can only be eventually determined by how the market responds to it. Some might say putting “all woods behind single arrow” is a great strategy because it allows laser-sharp focus, while some other might seek safety in numbers and might want to diversify and have a product for all pockets. However, in all those cases, it is likely that even if there was an initial luck that led to some technological or a market breakthrough, the long-term success only came from systematic planning and methodically executing on what was the most important or business at that time.

So, we come back to original question – is planning, or having the benefit of a plan just a placebo?  Some people might argue that a placebo works only when the subject is not aware of the existence of a placebo agent. If we go by the data by Placebo Research Center, there seems to be data to suggest that a subject could still demonstrate same results even while fully knowing of the existence of a placebo agent. So, it might not be long shot to say that existence of a plan, even if the manager or entrepreneur believes it to be just a work of business fiction, is completely redundant. After all, if writing something on a piece of paper becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and eventually leads to a success, that seems like a very small price to pay given the rather high odds of success in such an uncertain environment?

I am investing this subject further, but would love to hear back from you if your plan is just a placebo, or something much more methodical and meaningful?

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