Earlier today, I received an email from a friend of mine asking for a copy of my PhD thesis proposal to use as a guide while he writes his own. I defended my thesis earlier this year, so while drudging up this original outline of my anticipated research, I took the opportunity to glance over it and compare against the work that I actually accomplished in the intervening four years. As is typical of these proposals, the work I ended up doing bears little resemblance to the work I'd proposed originally, and the commonalities that do exist turn out to largely be things that I had already accomplished prior to "proposing" them. Given that, you might argue that writing the proposal wasn't a particularly useful endeavor, at least as far as guiding the research project.
Looking back however, I think I did get a lot out of writing that proposal, but from a somewhat unexpected source. Writing up the "proposal" of the research that I had already completed turned out to be an extremely valuable exercise, helping to bring structure to the previous work and highlighting interesting avenues to pursue. It only took a few months for those particular avenues to take unexpected turns, rendering the rest of the proposal largely irrelevant, but they did end up leading to interesting places.
As you might imagine, I bring this up not to make a point about thesis proposals or academic research, but as a way to think about business plans. Thesis proposals are pretty much the academic equivalent of a business plan, and they probably have a similar amount of utility as it relates to actually plotting a course into the distant future. The guys over at 37signals.com suggest that business guesses is a more appropriate term, and from the experiences we've had with Less Annoying Software, that seems to be about right. This isn't to say that thinking about the future isn't useful, so much as it is a reminder that you almost certainly don't have enough information about it to write anything detailed enough to be classified as a "plan."
On the other hand, you do have a good grasp on what you've been working on for the past few months. Taking the time to really evaluate and contemplate what you've been doing, and why you've been doing it, can be quite useful. To a certain extent, thinking about what you have been doing may be a better way to motivate your next steps than trying to explicitly plan out the next year or two. As such, the next time you're putting together a business plan, at least take a little time to put together a "business review" of what you've already accomplished. Doing so is a great way to highlight what worked, what didn't, and what things from a couple weeks ago need following up.
Reviews motivate, plans intimidate
One of the nice things about a business review is that it gives you an opportunity to recall your success. Doing so is a great way to get excited about working on the next project. Focusing on all the things that you have to do in the future, in contrast, can be intimidating. Most business plans are designed to achieve some far away goal, and everything in between is just a series of hurdles. Considering that many of those hurdles may not even turn out to be relevant, it's a shame to waste all that mental energy worrying about them.
All things in moderation
Obviously, I'm not advocating that you should spend all of your time resting on your laurels and not worry at all about planning. Focusing on the past can lead you to ride inertia for too long to places that may not be worth it. Having long term goals and ideas about how to get there can be an important part of growing your business. At the same time, an over-reliance on planning can be similarly dangerous, and much of what one hopes to accomplish through business planning can instead be achieved through a review.
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