The Discipline of Planning for Business Success

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By Ricky Tillman Harper

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
—Abraham Lincoln

I am thankful for 2020. Yes, you read that right. As difficult as last year was and as tragic as the pandemic has been, we learned much in 2020 and it is that for which I am thankful. We learned a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of our society, our culture, our government, our infrastructure, our businesses and ourselves.

While some businesses, about 26% nationally, failed because of the shutdown and subsequent economic slowing, others thrived during the pandemic. Especially those in the trades who enjoyed a boom in home and property improvement contracts. People sitting at home decided to upgrade flooring, roofs, repaint walls and improve landscaping. Owners of commercial buildings including government took advantage of the lockdown to renovate and improve facilities.

Then, there are the businesses that did not enjoy these windfalls but managed to survive. How did they do it? Most pivoted. They found a new way to sell such as restaurants that upgraded their drive throughs and take out capability. Some businesses added product lines; others found new avenues to sell their products. Regardless of the pivot made, business leaders found that the ability to pivot, and to do so quickly, was often the difference between success and mediocrity. Or failure.

I know two business owners in the medical supply field. Their products, distribution and manufacturing sources and sales forces were similar. Both businesses were established and reputable but small. When the pandemic struck one of these owners called distributors and purchased masks, hand sanitizer and similar products, added SKUs to their website and pivoted to selling these new (for them) products to high demand. By August of 2020, they had sold more than $1,000,000 of these products. They had pivoted and did so with speed and vision.

The second business could have easily done the same thing. But they did not. Their leaders basically put their heads in the sand and hoped the pandemic would end soon. How successful do you think they were last year?

Why did one pivot and achieve great success when the other, with almost identical infrastructure, did not? Planning. The former of the two businesses practiced regular planning, and no other discipline prepares you to pivot more than planning.

Through regular planning you learn to be more analytical, you develop your sense of vision, you hone creativity and adopt the skills of process. In Japan, they have a strong business culture built around planning. In fact, almost all Japanese businesses conduct annual strategic planning, every year. What is the value of that? More than half of the world’s businesses that are more than 200 years old are based in Japan. Their culture’s annual cadence of strategic planning has developed their ability to pivot, to be agile, to quickly take advantage of opportunity.

Our world is changing. We are now in what is called a VUCA environment. VUCA is a military term for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. That certainly describes today’s business climate. How can you be the leader that finds success in these difficult but opportune times? Start with a rhythm or a discipline of planning, then you will be ready to take advantage of opportunities or threats that come your way. Because cadence creates agility.