Make the Time to Plan

Posted on June 20, 2011


I play golf at the Army Service Corp course and there past the 12th hole is a small-arms firing range. On the wall of the range a sign painted in big bold letters reads: The More You Sweat in Peace The Less You Bleed in War. I always found the sign profound but its meaning really came to me when I meet A and R last evening.

I have known A and R for the past 6 months or so. I first met them at a mentoring session organized by IIMA’s MentorEdge initiative. They talked to me, for about an hour, on this new product idea that they wanted to execute. I liked their idea and encouraged them to move forward. They again met me in March when they had given some more shape to their idea and wanted my feedback on the prototype they had built. I liked what I saw and I shared some ideas and thoughts for them to work on. Two months later, they called me again and by this time they had launched an alpha version of their product. They had also brought on board a third co-founder, P, and she too joined us for the meeting.

As our meeting began, the excited team of A, R and P wanted to bounce off me a number of ideas, specifically ideas on product features and go to market initiatives. We began to work through the ideas – I had questions, they had answers, one idea led to other, another idea got modified – it was an extremely productive brainstorming session. However, while I was enjoying talking to the excited trio, I also began to realize that there was something missing; there wasn’t a method to the madness. It was not clear to me what goals the team was trying to achieve. Furthermore, the team had no metric to ascertain which of their tactic was working. Finally, what was missing was a baseline.

A, R and P knew what their business goals were but these hadn’t been translated into marketing goals. If you don’t have clearly articulated goals then what are you working towards? Moreover, in setting goals, you are also forced to create a hierarchy or a priority list of goals. As a team you start to ask (and answer) which of the goals are more important than others. This helps bring focus to your planning and aligns your resources accordingly. Metric help track the progress (or lack of it) you are making towards achieving the goals. A, R and P had a number of go to market initiatives they wanted to implement. Now it is a safe bet that some of these initiatives will fail. The challenge is how do you know if a particular initiative is a failure? Interestingly, arguments often arise if a particular initiative is indeed a failure. Unless you have agreed apriori on a set of metric to decide if you are making progress, the team will spend number of unproductive hours arguing the merits of one initiative over the other. Since A, R and P hadn’t thought of metric, they obviously hadn’t established a baseline or a starting level. You don’t know if you are jumping high enough if you don’t know how high a platform you are taking off from. Oftentimes, I see folks setting targets without an understanding where they currently are. Doubling your marketshare sounds like a good idea until you realize that it means you want your share to be 60% of the market. Is your market really that mature that it will allow a leader with 60% marketshare? Do you have the resources to achieve the goal – remember that for most product categories it is easy to double your marketshare when you current marketshare is 1%; a lot more difficult when your marketshare is 15% and extremely hard when it is 25%.

All this discussion brings me to the point I started with – The More You Sweat in Peace the Less You Bleed in War. A lot of startups I meet, think planning and strategy making is for wimps or large companies that can afford overheads. Nothing can be further from truth. Given their limited resources, startups can hurt really badly from lack of planning and strategy making. I have urged A, R and P to step back every week and access their progress. It is easy to get immersed in the minutia of getting things done but lose sight of the bigger picture

I am aware that a lot of startups do not have experienced resources within their organizations that can lead an ongoing planning and strategy making process. My advice to these startups is to hire the services of a business or a strategy coach. I offer such services and I know of a number of other talented and smart coaches that do to. Talk to these coaches to understand their experience and areas of expertise. Choose a coach that you think you can have a long term and close relationship with. Finally, engage a coach and commit to working with him or her regularly. Start with a 90 min/week schedule and evaluate the progress after 3 months to decide if you need to increase or decrease your level of engagement.

I can never overstate the importance of this maxim – MAKE THE TIME TO PLAN.