Ditch the Annual Marketing Plan

You’ve heard the maxim that 'failing to plan is planning to fail,' right? I’m not here to debate it. For any complicated initiative, a plan is needed – that’s true. But I do want to suggest that the long-held maxim only represents one side of the spectrum, and that the other side (overplanning) is equally dangerous to the success of a startup.

To put it bluntly, this is also true: 'Long-term planning is planning to fail.'

Here’s why.

The pace of change is constantly accelerating

Long-term plans work when they’re made in a context that’s well-understood and relatively unchanging. The modern world is nothing like that.

The market changes that we’re seeing as repercussions from COVID are only the continuation of what’s been happening for decades.

Moore’s Law states that the speed and capability of computers can be expected to double every two years, thanks to the increasing number of transistors that a microchip can contain. It’s held for over 50 years – and, while some believe its demise to be imminent, leaders at chip manufacturing companies remain optimistic that it will hold for the foreseeable future. Intel’s head of silicon engineering predicts we’ll see chips with 2 trillion transistors by 2020.

As you know if you’ve lived on earth this decade, the constant increase in computing power inevitably drives life-altering innovations. Smartphones feel inseparable from the human condition, but they’ve only been around for 14 years. VR and AR are only in their nascent phases. Big data sounds boring by now, but still, according to IBM, 90% of all of the data in the world has been created in the past two years.

I can continue to list off emerging technologies, but you get the point. The world is changing. And the rate of change is only increasing.

You can’t know everything

Given everything I’ve just listed – plus COVID, plus politics, plus everything else – it’s next to impossible to keep track of what markets are doing now. It is literally impossible to know what’s coming next.

For proof, consider that the biggest companies in the world, with huge teams dedicated to customer and market research, still rush headlong to sell bad products to dead end markets.

Remember Google Glass? Remember Microsoft Zune? Remember Facebooklite? Based on what these companies knew when these products launched, each was a good decision.

Clearly, they didn’t know everything.

Neither do you.

You need data

All of this serves to prove the point: The only way that you can accurately plan is to plan based on accurate data. And the only way that you can gather accurate data is through execution.

When you execute on something, you get feedback.

The bottom line is that long-term plans, by their nature, cannot be based on accurate data, because they can’t possibly account for data gathered via execution and for change over time.

The solution is not to stop planning. It’s to plan in shorter cycles

Again, I’m not arguing that planning is bad. Planning is necessary. But, as I outline in my book, Ride the Tornado, it needs to be done in shorter cycles so that the pace of change, the unknown unknowns, and any new data you gather from execution can be accounted for.

So, instead of creating a 10-year or even 3-year plan for your startup, focus on defining your goals. Crystallize your ideal outcomes, but don’t waste your effort charting out all of the tactical steps that will get you there.

Once your goals are clear, plan toward them only in short cycles – three or four months at a time, or in intervals even shorter than that. Ideate what will move you forward. Execute on your ideas. Assess your results, and use the data you’ve collected to inform the next round of planning.

By continually implementing short-term plans toward your goal, you’ll be far better equipped to navigate – and even benefit from – the rapid pace of change. You’ll account for the fact that you don’t know everything, and you’ll save your firm from rushing headlong in the wrong direction.

In short, you’ll still plan. But you’ll be far less likely to fail.