Why Plan B matters most

Not all plans work. We live in an imperfect world. And when everything has gone to hell, when you are up against the wall, you need adaptability. Max Mckeown, author and business expert, explains how to create a clever Plan B.

by Max Mckeown
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

Only one thing is certain in life: that there will be uncertainty. Events will overtake your plans, while the actions of others will demand adaptation. What if your beautiful strategy is failing to cope with reality?

‘We didn’t adapt fast enough’ is a common enough explanation for poor performance and disastrous leadership. It’s been used by leaders to explain opportunities lost through years of inflexibility and lack of imagination.

'There is no alternative' has become a popular rallying call. Leaders over-simplify by presenting only one choice as credible. As a result, clever thinking about alternatives dries up such that when unexpected change arrives the group can be left in a state of bewilderment, unsure and uncertain.

The most successful adaptors are curious. They understand that stability is a dangerous illusion. They reach out beyond obvious questions to non-obvious answers. They do not accept the choices they are given but actively seek better choices. They understand the value of Plan B. And Plans X, Y and Z.

Twitter was a Plan B produced by a struggling software company during an ad-hoc brainstorm in a playground near to their office. IKEAs flat pack furniture was a Plan B. Nokia’s move into mobile phones was a Plan B. Nintendo’s move into game consoles was a Plan B. Sir Alex bringing back Paul Scholes was a Plan B. Self-perpetuating cycles require intervention, some kind of breakthrough change of the pattern so it is allowed to gradually lose its negative impact. They need a plan B.

Managers are taught the value of being (or looking) organised. Leaders are taught the career value of being (or looking) in control. But what happens if their assumptions are wrong? The danger is that following a plan too slavishly will lead you efficiently in the wrong direction. And the right plan can be made wrong by events.

How do you embrace the notion of a Plan B? Evidence supports the idea that most successful entrepreneurs and leaders are fantastic at noticing opportunities. And the greatest opportunities come from reactions to unplanned events. So ask yourself: Does this problem let us start again and do it better? What can we do today that was impossible yesterday? Encourage your colleagues, staff and peers to challenge conventional wisdom. Think the unthinkable. If assumptions are wrong, then the radical may be right. And since assumptions are usually wrong eventually, the radical will probably be right one day.

Blockbuster believed in Plan A and kept on renting out videos. Game believed in Plan A and kept on opening stores. The Easter Islanders believed in Plan A and kept on cutting down trees. General Motors believed in Plan A and kept on producing gas-guzzling automotive porn while Toyota worked on a fabulous Plan B. Borders believed in Plan A while Amazon were willing to be misunderstood as they worked tirelessly on a game changing Plan B.

Any fool can produce a plan. The genius is seeing how new events open up new possibilities. So, never forget: when it comes to planning, Plan B matters most.

Max Mckeown is author of Adaptability: The Art of Winning in an Age of Uncertainty. You can follow him on Twitter.

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