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How To Convince Leaders To Avoid Business Plans When Validating New Ideas

How do we convince leadership to move away from business planning, and to embrace a culture of testing for new business ideas? In this post we’ll share a killer argument that will shake the bad company habit of writing detailed business plans, and help you explain the value of testing and validating underlying assumptions to your leadership.

In a past StratChat Q&A, we were asked how teams can convince management to move away from business plans in early stage ideas.

It’s a common habit inside companies: individuals and teams have a flood of great ideas that can create value for customers and the business. Leadership’s first reaction is to pick an idea and instruct people to develop a detailed business plan.

It’s a habit that will do more harm to an organization, because the company will be focused on refining and perfecting an untested idea. Business plans are great documents for executing on a known and validated idea, but they’re not useful if you’re just starting to search, design, and test new value propositions and business models.

In response to the audience question, Strategyzer co-founder Alex Osterwalder responded with a clear and killer argument:

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That statement gets senior leadership every time. What leader doesn’t want to reduce the risk of failure around business ideas? As Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit, has said about his own company:

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So if not business plans, then what?

1. Trust experiments over experts.

A business plan assumes you know all the answers for a given idea. That’s hardly the case. Teams spend hours and hours compiling fantastic forecasts, and will spend tons of money hiring people to build technology or products that have no evidence to support their success. You can always make the numbers look good in a plan and argue how well it will work, but the plan will mean absolutely nothing without rigorous testing and evidence. It’s a fine line between vision and hallucination.

Companies like FLO TV (under Qualcomm), and Better Place (a provider of battery switching stations for electric cars) both failed because of great plans full of assumptions and forecasts that never turned out to be true. Both companies started building expensive infrastructure and technology well before understanding if the assumptions around their value propositions and business models would work. Those were some pretty expensive failures, and they didn’t have to be. Better Place managed to raise and squander $850 million because the company assumed its plan would work.

Get started with: 10 Essential Links For Testing Your Value Proposition & Business Model

2. Explain that innovation isn’t expensive.

There’s this myth that big company innovation has to be expensive, and we know that’s just not true. Innovation is really a series of calculated investments in a portfolio of experiments. Rather than placing all of your resources and budget into one big “wild ass gamble”, leaders should be encouraged to test many ideas cheaply, and gradually increase investment as more evidence is gathered.

So encourage executives to embrace very quick and cheap experimentation. This will allow teams to gather evidence and validate or invalidate assumptions. Scott Anthony from Innosight believes that companies can set up an inexpensive innovation engine in just 90-days. The process of agile and nimble testing will reduce risk because teams will be learning faster and iterating the idea based on the knowledge gathered. You’ll also go-to-market quicker with a better sense of what your customers really want.

Listen to: Why Big Company Innovation Doesn’t Have To Be Expensive

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The failure of a big and loved idea can be damaging to the reputation of the team, leadership, and organization. And rejecting that business plan early on in favour of testing and gathering evidence will help your company avoid disaster.

In fact, Alex has been known to encourage burning business plans before they burn you to really drive the point home. Sounds harsh, but we can guarantee that bringing in a business plan very early on with a new idea will hurt your chances of being successful.

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