What explains this longevity? Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Charles O’Reilly calls it ‘organizational ambidexterity’: the ability of a company to manage its current business while simultaneously preparing for changing conditions. ‘You often see successful organizations failing, and it’s not obvious why they should fail,’ O’Reilly says. The reason, he says, is that a strategy that had been successful within the context of a particular time and place may suddenly be all wrong once the world changes.
So running a business right requires minding the details but also watching the horizon. Eyes down, eyes up. At the same time.
Which reminds me that dribbling is one of my favorite analogies for business planning. In soccer or basketball, dribbling means managing the hand-eye or foot-eye coordination of the immediate detail while simultaneously looking up and watching opponents and teammates and plays developing. When I was coaching kids in soccer, I’d try to help them remember to also look up and not just down at the ball. The best players did this naturally.
It’s a cycle. Plan, with metrics and milestones. Review once a month. Revise. Do it again next month. That’s the way to last forever, according to O’Reilly. It’s the right way to manage the details and the long term simultaneously.
Think of basketball or soccer. In both of these popular sports, dribbling is what the players do to move the ball in the right direction. It’s not the point of the game, it doesn’t score baskets or goals, but it’s an important skill, right? I think of dribbling as a great analogy for business planning. And here are some reasons why—and some lessons I suggest we can take from that.
Dribbling is a means to an end—not the goal. Planning is like that too. It’s about results, running a business—not at all about the plan itself. Good planning is measured by the decisions it causes. It’s about managing, allocating resources and accountability. I’ve written this in several places: “You measure a business plan by the decisions it causes.” And this: “Good business planning is nine parts execution for every one part strategy.”
Think of the moment when the player gets the ball in the wrong end of the court or field. That’s either a defensive rebound in basketball or a missed shot on goal in soccer. The tall player gets the basketball and gives it to the one who normally dribbles up court. Or the goalie gets the ball and gives it to a defender. At that moment, in a well-coached team: 1) there is a plan in place and 2) the player knows the plan but is completely empowered to change the plan instantly depending on how the play develops. Business planning done right is very much like that. The existence of a plan—take the ball up the side, pass to the center—helps the team know what ought to happen. But changes—the opponents do something unexpected—are also expected. The game plan doesn’t lock the players in to doing the wrong thing or not responding to developments. It helps them make the instant choices, changing the plan correctly…and when they do, the other players can guess the next step better because of the plan.
Dribbling involves simultaneously looking up, at the field, and developments going on; and down, at the ball, hands, and feet, to manage the details. Proper business planning, in very much the same way, requires looking up at the figurative horizon—¬threats, opportunities, competition, market developments, etc.—and down at the details: tasks, deadlines, budgets, accountability, and of course cash flow and plan vs. actual.
I’ve always liked this analogy because it dispels the myth that having a plan reduces flexibility to react to developments. Planning isn’t voided by change; on the contrary, having a plan makes reactions easier. There is no virtue in following a plan just because it’s the plan. Proper planning means regular review and revision.