Plans are reassuring. For most self-directed, Type-A achievers, the appeal of launching into a project without a firm to-do list ranks somewhere between walking across hot coals and leaping out of a plane without knowing how to work a parachute. The very idea is uncomfortable, frightening, and readily rejected. For most entrepreneurs, this "plan first" philosophy holds just as firmly — especially since the brunt of the work required to launch a business falls directly on their shoulders. What many of these entrepreneurs may not consider, however, is the danger of over-planning. In the end, sticking too closely to a single plan or goal might sacrifice their entrepreneurial flexibility and cripple the very business they hope to foster.
Let’s face it: we become attached to our pet projects. When a venture we’ve put months — or even years! — of our lives into begins to sink, it can be tempting to stay by our bailing stations until we, too, are underwater. Accepting the situation and allowing the business to go under is hard. For entrepreneurs, losing a startup can feel like a personal failure rife with emotional and professional repercussions.
The truth is, every entrepreneur faces devastating failure at some point. Even Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos watched zShops, an online auction site he fostered, flounder and fail. Today, he still maintains that the early failure helped him set the foundation for the astronomical success Amazon Marketplace enjoys today. Knowing when to abandon a plan and let go of projects that have sunk beyond sustainability is a sense that can only come with time, experience, and entrepreneurial maturity. The real key to success isn’t having a foolproof plan from the beginning; it’s about maintaining the flexibility necessary to make the real-time adjustments your venture needs to stay afloat.
The current business landscape has evolved in ways that entrepreneurs working a decade ago could never have imagined. Tech dominates the scene, sparking changes in how consumers and business-side leaders alike engage with products and marketplaces. Entrepreneurs working today need to stay attuned to changing trends in both their industries and the business world as a whole; otherwise, they might find themselves outmoded and cast aside in five years.
Consider the brick-and-mortar storefront. Twenty years ago, stores like Macy’s and Toys-R-Us were unshakeable bastions of retail, with hundreds of stores across the United States. With the rise of online retailers, however, their seemingly sturdy foundations have cracked. Today, declining sales have caused Macy’s to shutter many of its locations, and Toys-R-Us is in the process of closing down entirely.
The lesson here is simple: business models that can’t adapt to changing market trends and consumer needs will be left behind. Fields and career paths that exist now may not stick around through the next decade — and entirely new ones may pop up in their absence. The best businesses will be those that can take risks and keep up with the times. As one reviewer for an IBM study on changing business models puts it, the best ventures are aligned, analytical, and adaptable, or “able to bring about change by creating flexible operations that can be quickly modified without requiring massive overhauls of ongoing processes.”
Today, entrepreneurs and established businesses alike have access to real-time data resources that corporate leaders working five years ago could only dream of. Innovative and flexible entrepreneurs can use this feedback to develop new insights into what is and isn’t working for their business and to implement creative shifts that can help their ventures adapt to changing market conditions. Planning has its place; we use it to develop our goals and chart a clear path between our achievements and aspirations. Without built-in flexibility, however, the to-do lists we build to help our businesses thrive will inevitably constrict their ability to grow.