Sunday, January 30, 2011

Plan a Little, Do a Lot

Business Strategies

While on a flight recently, I read a very interesting article about being stuck in a career (How to Stay Struck in Your Career, by Herminia Ibarra – HBR.org link). The premise of the article was that if you wish to be stuck in your career, then continue to make plans on how to get out of it, but if you actually want to succeed in changing careers or starting your own business, plan a little, and do a lot.  Herminia especially emphasizes experimenting to learn whether a chosen path is the right one. 

When I thought more about this, and given that I’m planning a snowboarding trip, I thought of all the wild storms we’re having in the U.S. in the mid-west and east.  I imagined what 2011.01.30_CarStuckInSnowwould happen if I made a stop, while driving through one of those regions, to figure out how to get past the storms.  If I spent hours at my stop, planning the various routes and possibilities of what each route would encompass, where it would take me, what type of grade each road had and whether my car would be able to scale it in the snow, whether the road was mountainous or straight, whether it was paved or dirt, among other factors, I may end up with my car buried in snow.  Hence, all of my planning would have been for naught.  Because of the extensive planning, I would be stuck in the very storm I was trying to avoid!

This is truly no different than the premise of the article and it applies just as well on your career working for someone else or yourself.  If there’s one important lesson that the past 18 months have taught me is that doing after preliminary planning is almost always better than extensive planning. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a need to plan and you should always spend some time planning your projects, career, business, but you don’t need to spend weeks and months doing it.  If you do spend many months planning, you’ll end up either loosing the opportunity or becoming too fearful to act.  After all, extensive research into every consequence and outcome will likely scare you out of doing something that would otherwise forever change your life for the better.

Below are two personal examples to demonstrate the point. 

Stuck in Snow
I recall a venture I started with a couple of engineers more than a decade ago.  It was my first attempt to start a business and a complete failure.  We spent three months talking about an online community called MySkool.com that would be used to share class notes, as well as academic announcements and events.  If you’re familiar with the Blackboard online services used in many of today’s universities, then you know what I’m talking about. 

During those three months, we stressed that we had to understand the full design of the solution to the most minute detail.  We talked about our plans, wrote some specifications, and, plainly put, over-engineered a solution. 

By the end of three months, I saw so many things that could go wrong that I became too fearful to take the first step and actually build a software solution.  What’s more, our idea for the solution was so grand that we didn’t think we could handle it.   It just had too many features

The talks eventually fizzled out as everyone felt the same way, and we abandoned the project.  Talk about regrets!!!

Got on the Highway
Four years ago, in my last year in an MBA program, I took an Entrepreneurship course in between semesters. The class was held during the five week recess over and past the Christmas holidays when the regular semester session students were out and about. 

The class was only four weeks long.  This meant that instead of meeting once a week, we met four times a week plus a couple of Saturdays to get the same amount of class time as we would during a regular semester session. 

Our group project for the course was to write a business plan for a fictional or soon-to-be business.  One of our team members had a fantastic idea she’d spent many years thinking about.  It was to make a unique coffee beverage for a niche target market.  After everyone else in the team revealed their ideas, we thought the coffee beverage concept was spectacular, especially since she planned to launch it in the coming year. 

Here was the challenge: we had four weeks to complete all research and planning, then present a viable business plan to the class as if we were pitching to investors.  Not enough time to complete everything, right?

Then our instructor read our business idea and asked whether we’d be interested in entering a business plan competition at the University.  This meant we wouldn’t pretend to present to potential investors, but that we would present to actual local Angel investors.  We spent just the night to talk about and make a decision on this: we were going for it.

Within the remaining three weeks, we not only completed the coursework, while working full-time management positions in our respective companies, we also completed the business plan with full market research, marketing plan, budget planning and related investor presentation.

We ended up winning the University business plan competition and related monetary award, then made it as semi-finalists to two international business plan competitions at the University of San Francisco and Jungle Media in New York.

Our idea and planning was sufficient to gather interest from multiple investors at each location.  In other words, a substantial number of investors thought our business idea, with a little more than three weeks of planning, was worth pursuing, which is what our team-mate did subsequently.

Conclusion
What does this all mean for you? Whether you’re stuck in the same role and wish for something better, you’ve been recently laid off and are searching work, or you’re looking for a way to start a new business, spend a few days days, may be even a couple of weeks figuring out who you want to be, what type of business you want to run and the steps you think you’ll have to take to get there. Then take action

It doesn’t matter if the steps are the right ones that take you there on the first try.  What matters is that as soon as you have a preliminary plan, you take the first step, then the second, and third. 

If you learn the path you’re on is not the right one, GREAT! You’ve just discovered something you didn’t know before that could’ve taken you weeks if not months to figure out while planning.  You’re now wiser and, most importantly, CLOSER to your dreams and goals.

So, what are you waiting for?  Stop reading and start doing.

Act NOW!!!

What Do You Think?

Now it’s your turn.  What do you think?

Photo Credits

La Femme DC