How: the worst, most asked planning question

How now, never later.

It’s a terrible long-range planning question, but we love to ask “HOW will we get from where we are to our three year objective?” Asking HOW ensures nothing remarkable will happen and is much more likely to lead you to disaster.

Business planning gurus and academics love to teach us to answer all the outstanding questions before we get moving. And “how” we get from where we are to where we want to be is stressed above all else.

Life Happens
The problem is life. It keeps getting in the way of our best plans, and no matter how well we plan how to get where we want to go, as soon as we start moving, the world and life starts messing with our plan. It simply never works out anything like we planned, and the farther out we are planning, the less likely it is to work out.

A Harvard researcher found that 97% of all businesses leave their prime objective in order to be objective. The world’s greatest past and present businesses (Apple, Google, Facebook, HP, 37signals, etc.) all started out to do something other than what they ended up doing. And none of them did much pre-planning, if any.

Even among those few that wasted time pre-planning, they all took a left turn fairly early on to make money. Ben and Jerry put together a nice plan to make bagels, then they went out to buy a bagel machine and found they were expensive. The bagel machine salesman told them ice cream machines were less expensive, so we have Ben & Jerry’s ice cream instead of bagels.

Strategic vs. Tactical
“How” is not a strategic question. It shouldn’t be asked in long ranging planning. That doesn’t make it irrelevant. It is a great short-term, tactical question. Once you figure out where you want to be three years from now, ask “How will I get from where I am to the next step?” Use “how” to answer one step at at time on the way to your long-range objective.

Use “how” only in the short term
Webvan.com pre-planned how to get all the way from non-existent to being a $2billion company, and never wavered from their great plan. They went bankrupt a few years later, taking all $2billion in investor’s money with them. Like Webvan, answering the long-range “how” is much more likely to make us think we’ve got it all figured out, and will keep us from responding to the cues from the real world that always lead us to success. Remarkable things come from answering short-term “how”. Disaster is more likely when answering long-term “how”.

Never use “how” for long-range planning. Use “why”, “where” and “when” for the long-range stuff. Once you know exactly where you want to end up and when, then ask “How do get from where I am to the next step?” Come up with a plan to get through the next few weeks, then ask short-term “how” again. And do it a thousand times on the way to your objective.

A Thousand Short-term “hows”
Life and business are to fluid to ask long-term “how”. Keep “how” for the short term. You’re much less likely to run into problems if you ask a thousand short-term “hows” than if you ask a thousand long-term “hows”.

How now, never later.

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