When one thinks of Mike Tyson one does not necessarily think first of his wisdom. His words, which form the title of this post, are thought to be an adaptation of Joe Louis’ earlier comments: “everyone has a plan until they get hit”.
I remember Mike Tyson bursting onto the scene and he looked terrifying in his pared-back black gym shorts and black boots, built like a Pitbull terrier; all shoulders, no neck. Opponent after opponent was despatched with ease, destroyed in a flurry of incomparable speed and ferocity as he went on to become the youngest world heavyweight champion ever.
One can imagine his opponents meticulously preparing to face him, wondering how they were going to deal with ‘Iron Mike’; their strategies, their movements, their tactics. Then from nowhere the punches land. They are harder than anything this boxer has experienced before. All the plans, all the preparation, go out the window.
‘The best-laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley.’
Has Covid-19 been like one of Mike Tyson’s infamous right uppercuts? Appearing from nowhere? A knockout blow?
Was the planning pointless? Is planning pointless?
To borrow another example from sport, recently I have been watching the ‘Last Dance’ series on Netflix which focuses on Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls basketball dynasty and in particular their 1997-98 season. I’m Scottish, 5ft 8 (in my platforms…) and was never going to be a basketball player, but like everyone else on the planet, I knew who Michael Jordan was, knew who the Chicago Bulls were and understood their dominance of the NBA.
I’ve read parts of Michael Jordan’s biography but up until recently, I hadn’t watched much footage of his performances for the Bulls. What’s clear is that he is considered by everyone who played with him, or against him, to be the best basketball player to ever play the game; unplayable, unstoppable. His speed and athleticism are incredible to watch, as is his desire to win.
In one episode, one of his opponents describes him as ‘God, disguised as Michael Jordan.’
Relatively early on in Jordan’s career, there was an intense rivalry between the Bulls and the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons were viewed much like Wimbledon FCs crazy gang of the late 80’s/ early 90’s; dirty, physical and intimidating. They lacked the refinement of the other teams and played with far less grace. They were fine with that as they knew how to win and also understood that if they wanted to beat the Bulls they had to stop Michael Jordan. They needed a plan.
This plan became known as ‘the Jordan rules’. It’s a bit too technical to go into, or even understand if you’re not a basketball player, but the implementation of these rules (the plan) meant that in seasons 1989 and 1990 they defeated the Bulls and won the NBA championship.
Some plans work, some plans don’t.
Business plans and projections are similar. They are works of fiction. Aspects of them might come true and aspects of them won’t.
Two years ago we went through a fairly intense, relatively expensive process where we interviewed several people with a view to them coming on board Moore Legal Technology as either a part-time finance director or as a non-exec board member with a particular focus on finance. As part of that exercise, I commissioned one of them to engage in a fairly detailed process of financial modelling; we sat for hours stress testing, modelling variables, predicting income growth, staff increase, resources etc. The outcome was a set of 5-year projections.
Part of the reason for this was that we were initiating a robust new marketing initiative which we were sure was going to grow our revenue substantially.
The outcome of the strategic modelling exercise was as you would expect – increased turnover, increased profit etc. You could picture the graph - moving steadily upwards.
We followed the plan, implemented our marketing scheme and took on more customers than ever before.
The truth was that in 2018 we took on more customers than ever before, and we lost more customers than ever before. We didn’t predict that. Our retention rate is normally very high, but what we had done, to cope with the increase in demand, was change our structure and this change of structure, when stress-tested, didn’t work. Could we have predicted this? Maybe.
If you were looking at the results in terms of the plan it was a complete failure. The reality, however, is that it was a big success. We learned a lot about our business, what customers wanted and what mattered to them, and us. We adapted and the results forecast in our original plan have simply been a year late. The real benefit of the plan was that we had something to measure ourselves against, we could look back on our forecasting and thought-processes critically and with the clarity of retrospect.
I fail to believe that any business last year, certainly any small to medium-sized law firm, planned for a global pandemic and so every business with a plan is pretty much in the same boat, ripping it up, or at least ripping sections of it up.
Many, far brighter, more eloquent than me have been struck by the relationship between planning and a plan and I’m a very firm believer that the real benefit of a plan is the work done to get there. Or as Steve Jobs said ‘the journey is the reward’. The reflection, the soul searching, the analysis of what went wrong, what’s worked well and what could be done better. Planning helps you explore your business.
Pain + reflection = progress.
Last week I asked every team member to come up with eight ideas as to how we can implement some of what we have learned about ourselves, our business, our service, our customers so that we can work out what type of agency we are going to be in the post-Covid world.
We will discuss these ideas and I hope many of them will be implemented into our plan for 2020-21.
Will the plan work? Time will tell.
The planning will work though. Of that, I have no doubt.
‘In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable’ - Dwight D Eisenhower