Doubting our plans

Most things written by academics about strategy fall into the two broad categories of strategic planning and strategic execution.

It seems that the academics have not been speaking to people outside their institutions enough. 

John Lennon probably had a clearer view of how things really work when he sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Nobody sees the future like they believe they do. Ask Nassim Nicholas Taleb or Daniel Kahneman.

All we can do is hypothesise and test those hypotheses as Jim Clarke describes in his work on Business Plan You.

Doubting that our plan will work is the first step towards thinking about the future as it is likely to play out. 

Beyond planning and executing to testing hypothesise

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Two ways forward

There are at least two ways to plan and get things done. 

One way is to plot.

That is breaking everything that needs to get done into smaller and smaller pieces and then manage your way towards the outcome. 

The other way is to be ready.

When opportunities arise grab them, when they don’t arise sit back and wait for opportunities to arise.

Both ways need you to know, at a high level, where you would like to get to.

The first so you can plot the steps and the second so that you know which opportunities to grab.

In 1998, author Richard Rumelt (Good Strategy / Bad Strategy) met with Steve Jobs and pointing out that having only one computer would consign Apple to a niche that they would never be able to escape from, Rummelt asked Jobs, ‘What is your long term strategy?’

Jobs didn’t attack his argument. Instead he smiled and said ‘I’m going to wait for the next big thing’

Steve Jobs - I'm going to wait for the next big thing













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My manifesto on art and life

My life is the sum of what I have created and what I will create.

If we judge everything we do as creative, we set our own bar for what we put out into the world.

Rather than setting goals, step back and evaluate what I am creating and what do I want to create. Creation is more than goals.

Collaborate with others because life is more interesting creating with people.

And more complicated.

Borrow and lend freely.

Success is judged by others. 

When I judge it myself I am mostly wrong.

How much do I care what others think?

Comparing to others limits creativity. 

All that really matters is what is left behind when I am no longer here.

My manifesto on art and life








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Can we assume Blackberry will still be around?

Assumptions are filters through which we see the world. With too much information flowing past us and too many decisions to make on most days, we do a very human thing which is to assume. 

As assumption is like a mental shortcut. It allows us to move forward without doing all the detailed work. This makes a lot of sense most of the time.

Sometime however assumptions can cause real problems. Like in an environment where misunderstanding can have high costs. I remember my flying instructor explaining how we do radio calls to the control tower at Cape Town International airport.

A quick piece of context here is that we were flying in a two seater Cessna and were using the same runway as the local and international Boeing’s and Airbuses. His line which has always stuck with me is that if we assume something in this situation we are at risk or making an-ass-of-u-and-me.  

In business making assumptions is a key part of being entrepreneurial and growing a business. If we spend too much time analysing, we don’t ever get out the door. To get out the door we need to make some assumptions.

The deceptive thing about assumptions is that if we have made them once and they worked out, then we are likely to feel more confident the next time when making a similar assumption. This has been the downfall of many a business person who has been very successful in one area and tried to do exactly the same in another without checking their assumptions. Michael Jordan attempting to play baseball for the Chicago White Sox is also an example of this. 

Blackberry’s challenges over the past years is a modern day example of assumptions gone wrong. Coming from the success that RIM and now Blackberry had, dominating the business smartphone market for all those years, it must have been hard for them not to assume that they would continue to dominate.

Their assumption was that an iPhone was impossible back in 2007 when it was announced. A former employee of Blackberry revealed that the assumption internally was that what Apple were promising in the iPhone could not work. Imagine the panic when they realised that they were wrong. They have been playing catch up ever since. 

It is hard to be at the top of your game and then have someone join in who changes the rules to your disadvantage. Assuming it will never happen in a world where technology changes as fast as it does is perhaps a little naive. Andy Grove of Intel took his distrust of assumptions to an extreme level by calling his autobiography, ‘Only the paranoid survive’.

Blackberry’s current roll out of Blackberry Messenger (BBM) to iPhone and Android is looking like further poor assumptions. From the outside we can only guess at the impact giving BBM away free to their competitors will do for their floundering business.

Internally Blackberry must have made a couple of assumptions that look something like this:

  1. Keeping BBM proprietary to Blackberry will sentence it to obsolescence on a shrinking client base,
  2. Bearing (1) in mind, people other than the dwindling Blackberry population, will use BBM if it is available for free; and
  3. BBM available free on the competitor iPhone and Android platforms will be good for the Blackberry business.

Supposing I am correct about the assumptions above, then it is clear that this is a delicate situation for Blackberry. Perception has changed about Blackberry’s ability to deliver a popular smartphone. This is reflected in its market share of 4% at the end of August (against iPhone’s 40.7% and Android’s 51.6%), a fraction of the 20% they held in 2009 (source Gartner).

This makes the manner in which they have rolled out BBM disappointing. This included delivery in late October despite aiming for early September, mixed messages from their partner Samsung, no communication to people who have indicated interest and when it did arrive on my iPhone the only thing the app does is to say that I am in a queue to get it later. Really?

Perhaps there is an assumption that the whole world is anxiously awaiting BBM. This may be the case or it may be that many people like me are wanting it to stay in contact with the handful of people close to them who still insist on staying with Blackberry. I hope for Blackberry’s sake that when it does actually arrive it is a strong contender for WhatsApp and paid for text messages.

BBM assuming everyone is waiting with bated breath for BBM






















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Reversing the logic

Because we get old we slow down and have to be less active.

When we get into our 70’s we aren’t able to ride skateboards because we may fall.

People in the late stages of their life cannot balance on slack lines. 


Stephen Jepson walks a slackline in his 70's






The video below proves this logic is faulty.

As obvious as it sounds, being active is the best way to stay active.

Often we decide that because of an injury or some other reason, we need to slow down and take things easier as we get older.

This is contrary to what our bodies are made to do, which is to move. And continue moving well into old age. 

If you need more examples then look here, herehere and here

So why is this discourse of getting old and slowing down so common? The reason is that it is pervasive and to push against it is hard. It’s easier just to agree. 

The same is true for business. There are many experts with advice on what we should or could do. However, when the music stops, it is up us to decide how we stay in the game. The critics can watch on the side and say, ‘I told you so


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Jumping in

A recent client of mine is in a very dynamic technology based industry which has gone through tremendous growth in the last ten years. As a result of this and relatively low barriers to entry they are now in an extremely competitive space with a race to the bottom on price fuelled by clients being able to switch easily and low perceived points of difference between large established and small operators that are new entrants. They also have the challenge of being regulated which continually adds to their operational cost. In short, business is tough.

In strategy sessions requested to set up and consider different ways of competing, the group concluded with the points above and more. It was clear that something different needed to be done and everyone agreed with this. But when it came to spending time thinking about this change, there was a reluctance to engage. The group agreed that ‘someone’ should spend time thinking about alternative ways that they could do business. However there were no takers.

I’ve seen many groups and in these situations one of a couple of things normally happen. Somebody grabs it as an opportunity to make difference and an impact. If nobody grabs it then the CEO will either assign it or take it themselves so as to either drive it or persuade somebody to drive it outside the strategy session. In this case nobody was coming forward. 

The challenge of this situation is that the piece of work has unknown outcomes. This is scary for many people. Taking on a task which is to think about different ways of doing things can be really exciting but it is also risky. It is undefined work, work that can easily be shot down because it cannot easily be compared to something else. If however we stick with what we know things are a lot safer and predictable. 

To break out of the unknown we need to take risks. Risk taking implies not knowing the outcome.

This is hard and very rewarding when it comes off.

Which is why doing the safe thing quickly gets unrewarding. 

To get rewards (the real kind that we feel internally), we need to jump in.

Take a risk and jump in.







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The best way to end a meeting

Just before walking out the door after a meeting, try asking this killer question which summarises everything that has just happened.

“So what are you taking away from this meeting?”

The summary which follows gives you an opportunity to hear what others are concluding from the meeting.

It immediately gives you a checkpoint confirming  that they are leaving with the desired outcome of the meeting. If not, then it gives you an opportunity to correct it. If you are not sure what the other person or people are leaving with then the meeting may have been a complete waste of time.

Speaking of which, if you have too many meetings where the outcome that the other participants report back after you ask the question falls well short of the objectives of the meeting, then you have to rethink how you run your meetings.  

One question that effectively summarises a whole meeting











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Starting again

It is hard to start a project. Sometimes it is even harder starting again. Picking things up when they have gone astray can be difficult.

The principal underpinning this phenomena is momentum. Just as more effort is required to move a stationery object, so too more effort is required to get momentum when a project is in its /early stages.


Sadly a stopped project has this momentum issue plus a whole lot of doubts about whether momentum can be gained again. Having known movement and then experiencing the stall can raise all sorts of doubts in the people driving the project.


The one upside of a stalled project is that the time away from it gives a space to reflect and refocus. 


If used beneficially this reflection can compensate for the doubts and sense of failure. 


Ironically if we overcome the challenge of being stalled, we immediately start feeling like we are making progress, just like before the break.


The trick is to not let the burden of being in a slump prevent you from lifting yourself out. 


Starting again can be hard and very invigorating.















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The liberating effect of constraints

Much of recent human development has been driven by the quest to create more and more options in all aspects of our lives. 

From the ability to easily travel to any part of the world, to having access to a diverse assortment of food, shops, entertainment, gadgets or education, the world is flatter than ever and we have access to the widest range of everything – certainly more than we have ever known in our history.

Does this abundance of choice make life better?

Probably not.

More choice can prevent us from moving forward and less choice helps us to walk out the door. 

In his book Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz cites numerous studies showing that where there is too much choice it can lead to unhappiness, and can even prevent someone from making a decision. (Schwartz, B, 2003). In a study called “When Choice is Demotivating,” a gourmet food store in an upmarket community typically set up tables with new products that people could sample and buy. Using this environment, researchers set up a line of exotic, high quality jams for customers who, after tasting the samples, could get a one dollar coupon should they decide to buy. Setting up two scenarios, the researchers offered six varieties of jam in the one and 24 varieties in another. In both scenarios the full 24 varieties were available for purchase with the same discount. The 24 varieties attracted more people to the table, although in both the scenario with six and 24 varieties about the same number of people tasted. The real difference however came when measuring who actually bought the jams. Thirty percent of this exposed to the scenario where there were only six jams bought while only 3 percent of those exposed to 24 varieties bought. 

Setting ourselves some constraints, removing some of the options off the table, is more likely to get us out the door than adding more possibilities. 

“I’m sorry I wrote such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one”
– Blaise Pascal, Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln (take your pick)

The liberating effect of constrains. Reducing our choices is more likely to get us out the door.

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There is always baggage

Whether a company or an individual, our past often impacts how we respond today. 

This is why so many small businesses fail to make the leap to medium businesses and medium business struggle to become really big.

Growth demands change. Growth demands letting go of old ways so as to create new. 

Likewise, as people with baggage, we often learn a way to respond to a feeling which works well initially (it may have been in our childhood). Later in life we have the potential for a better response but don’t always take it, as it feels safer to hang onto our original way of doing things. 

The thing with baggage is that it becomes more of a problem when we do not acknowledge it. 

By owning up to baggage we give ourselves the potential to move beyond it. 

Unfortunately, pretending we don’t have baggage is the surest way to allow it to trip us up. 


Emotional baggage is being too scared to let go of an old response to a feeling despite knowing now there is a better way

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