Kill The Five Year Plan: Is It Time To Unplan Your Business?

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[tweetmeme] A guest post by Ian Sanders

If there’s one thing we’ve learnt in this digital space, it’s that things can change. Just like that. A random tweet can produce an unanticipated business opportunity and your fortunes can change in an instant. Isn’t it time our approach to business planning reflected the realities of how we operate?

More and more of us are running businesses in increasingly agile ways. Rather than building big bricks and mortar companies with departments of people on the payroll, we are creating lean businesses, utilising virtual talent that offer more potential for success and survival. That approach equips companies to be agile enough to change and react rapidly to fluctuating market conditions.

This new generation of 2010 businesses requires a new approach to planning: it’s time to ditch traditional planning and replace it with ‘unplan’ thinking. ‘Unplanning’ your business reflects the serendipity and randomness that are essential elements of our work lives. How can you plot on a Five Year plan those random opportunities that arise from Twitter, online exchanges or unplanned meetings?

Unplanning is about fast-tracking the journey from idea to marketplace. It is about having goals in place, but not having the traditional linear route to reach them. With online tools such as crowd sourcing, Twitter, PayPal and other apps you can launch, promote and test business ideas faster than you can write a business plan. Iteration is key – you don’t need focus groups any more, you can launch an idea in beta, test it, get reaction and adjust your model in days.

So find a new way to plan your new business ideas. Experiment, test and prototype. Be flexible and trust your instinct to make those decisions about where you take your business, affording yourself the luxury to take left turns when you spot opportunities or identify trends worth following.

It’s about being enterprising; being prepared to change tack or rip up the plan to win an opportunity or reflect market demand. Big businesses with fixed plans and operating procedures are like unwieldy super tankers: if you embrace the spirit of #unplan and are agile in your business development, you can be like a speedboat that can changes course at a moment’s notice. Unplanning can give you that competitive edge, as Kevin Roberts, Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide CEO said to me:

“A company’s success can be measured on an inverse ratio to the amount of time it spends on traditional strategic planning. In our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex & ambiguous) world it’s about ‘surfing’ not managing. Catching the customer wave first and riding it hard. In the Participation Economy it’s anticipating how your customers will feel that counts… and then helping them get to their future first”

Download the free guide ‘Unplan Your Business’



Ian Sanders is a business coach, marketing expert and author, with twenty years experience in business: ten years in organisations and ten years working for himself. He’s helped both big brands and small enterprises with the launch of new ventures, taking ideas to market. At The Ian Sanders Company, he acts as a ‘business potentialiser’ helping clients stay distinctive and effective. Ian is a stimulus junkie; he revels in soaking up and spreading new ideas, applying new thinking to business and the workplace. He’s author of ‘Leap! Ditch Your Job, Start Your Own Business & Set Yourself Free’ and ‘Juggle! Rethink Work, Reclaim Your Life’. Twitter @iansanders


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  1. I really buy into this theory Ian. If businesses (large and small) have learnt anything from the recession, let alone the increased venturing into social media marketing – it’s that what you expect to happen may just not happen. If you overplan for what you thought would happen, the unwieldy-super-tanker effect can hit all of us when the tide changes due to factors out of our control.

    As a bloke who thinks business plans are for presenting to bank managers, and bank managers alone – I love the theory of flexibility – and have particularly experienced a transformation in business application through the immediacy of Twitter. The line I have always used is to “be light on your feet”.

    The only thing to wary of in flexibility – is inconsistency. There are some things that remain sacred, and every business has core values, core products/services, and brand identity. Careless unplannedness (check the dictionary, it isn’t there) can look like confused lack of direction, and nothing ever gets achieved or completed.

    Great thoughts anyway.

    Now, let me see if I can unplan some more Social Media Account Managers from somewhere…


  2. Ian Sanders says:

    Thanks Steve, I’m glad it resonates with you.
    I think there’s a whole generation of small businesses who have had no choice but to be flexible and fluid in order to be enterprising but also to survive. Okay, unplanning isn’t for everyone – I’ve had some naysayers reject the whole notion – but it does reflect that immediacy of business that you describe. And yes, of course unplanning is no excuse for laziness and it isn’t about having no goals, purpose or drive. Indeed it’s quite the opposite. So ditch the linear route to your goals and get unplanning…

  3. I’m sure there have been many naysayers – I’m in an industry that in the main cannot function without set business plans and the rigidity that comes with it. The suggestion of `unplanning` would send palpatations through many a recruitment director’s office – hence why the major players cannot find the navigation points to shift that tanker in the direction of social media marketing, because their plans are too set in stone and require a cultural shift and the public-hanging of several board directors still with 1980’s twin sets to apply any change.

    …leaving those of us with light feet and multi-dimensional plans to run freely! 🙂

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