Plans are worthless, but planning is indispensable

Every now and again I come across a phrase which I wish I’d come up with myself and this is one:

Plans are worthless, but planning is indispensable

Chris Dixon used it as a title for a post yesterday, and at first I thought the credit was due to him (which wouldn’t have surprised me), but it turns out that President Eisenhower uttered these words in a 1957 speech.

It’s a great quote because many entrepreneurs don’t like writing committing their plan to paper because they know that they won’t end up following it. In this sense plans are worthless. But as Eisenhower points out the value is in the planning process. Chris explains it thus:

before you commit yourself to working on a project for 5+ years, it’s prudent to think hard about what you are trying to build and some of the things that might go wrong. For many people, writing out a detailed business plan is the best way to enforce intellectual rigor.

For me rigour is the point. Putting ideas down on paper forces a clarity and completeness which is rarely present in verbal dialogue, but the planning process is only worth it if there is a true commitment to being rigorous and finding out the right answer (or as close to it as you can get). As Chris says the key point is to be clear about what you are trying to do and to look hard for reasons you might not be able to do it. As an example, absence of a good route to market is a killer for many businesses and one that can often be identified in advance. I was talking about a company in 3D printed med-tech yesterday and it became clear to me that in spite of its obvious benefits getting surgeons to adopt the product was likely to be formidably hard because they buy from established sales channels owned by competitors and have little time or desire to adopt radically new technologies which change the nature of surgery.

I also like the following one-liners on the benefits of planning:

  • You are much more likely to get where you want to go if you know where it is.
  • The point of planning is to describe a path that gets to your destination. With new information you can and most likely will change path, but unless you plan you can’t know that you are on a path that leads to where you want to go.
  • Andrew Hall (sumdog)

    Planning is useful, as long as the recipients understand that plans are worthless.

    However, in my experience, many of those outside of a business (bank managers, grant providers etc), can take a rigid view of plans that means that every deviation requires detailed explanation however unimportant. That’s when plans become a real pain in the arse. That’s also when planning becomes a linguistics game to provide greatest wriggle room for when things deviate, which they inevitably will.

    What approach do investors take to plans, post investment? Are they used as a stick? Or just simply as a useful tool?

  • ‘I was talking about a company in 3D printed med-tech yesterday.’ It’s an absolute joy to be alive in such innovative times. Fascinated to see which companies you and other VCs will back in that area. Do keep writing about it!