To catch the ball, face up, look at all of my options and then pass. I was playing hot potato. I didn’t want to be the guy to stall the triangle. – Karl Malone
You probably have a preferred way of working – perhaps you carefully plan exactly what you’re going to do before starting work; Maybe you just get stuck in and see what happens.
Planning has never really worked for me.
It seems a good idea, in principle, but in practice it never quite delivers.
And I’m reminded of this approach because of a few projects that are on the go right now.
For example, I was wondering what it might take to start a podcast.
What kind of kit do you need? Should you script it all out or just go with basic points. What would you talk about?
Now, if you want answers to these questions all you have to do is head over to YouTube and you get a range of views and advice, all very helpful and interesting.
What would you do next?
For a start, one video explained that you should be aware that most podcasts don’t go past seven episodes.
The answer, they explained, was to make sure you really know what you’re going to talk about, who your audience is and have a plan for the structure of your episodes.
They started losing me around that point.
And I think part of the reason is that everyone defaults to a particular mode of thinking that they believe is the right one to have at this point.
Take starting a business, for example.
Everyone wants you to have a business plan – something in writing that sets out what you’re going to do, the size of the market growth projections, how you’re going to raise finance – and a whole bunch of other things to show that you’ve thought through what needs to happen.
Plans might be useless, as Eisenhower said, but planning is essential.
I wonder though if this way of thinking misses the point, perhaps two points.
The first is that at the start of a project you probably don’t know where you want to end up.
Maybe you have a vague idea or a very clear conviction – but things change.
And they usually change when you’re confronted by reality.
Reality that can come from inside or outside you.
The type that comes from inside is when you start a business or podcast or project and realise as you get going that it’s not really something that you’re passionate about and driven by.
Maybe you thought that it was something worth doing – perhaps you thought there was a market that hadn’t been exploited and you were the one that could do it.
In other words, you chased after an opportunity.
The type that comes from outside is when you don’t get the confirmation you expected from those around you or people in general.
This is when you don’t get enough followers, enough customers or enough recognition.
At this point, the lack of apparent traction puts you off – maybe to the point where you abandon the project altogether.
The underlying issue in these situations is that you are chasing something.
The way I look at this, borrowing a metaphor from value investing, is like a surfer.
I’ve never surfed but I’m reliably informed that surfers don’t paddle out into the sea, look for a big wave and head towards it, hoping to catch it.
Instead, they get in position and wait for a wave to come along and lift them up.
In other words, they don’t catch a wave; the wave catches them.
So, this is important for the internal challenge you face – if you’re doing something because you like doing it then you’ll probably keep doing it.
If you don’t then other things will seem more interesting soon and you won’t.
And, when you like what you’re doing you won’t mind waiting until the wave comes along.
I assume surfers sitting out there on their boards chatting to each other are having a good time.
I’d be thinking of sharks…
And they’re happy to wait till the opportunity comes along because they like being out there.
So the key thing is being ready to wait it out.
And you can’t plan for this because you don’t know anything about the future – you can’t predict when the opportunity will arise.
So that means you need to have the ability to keep going until it materialises – and that means thinking not about the long-term plan but about the next step and the immediate options you have.
The key is to preserve optionality – your ability to make the most of what comes along.
That means what you need to think about is not what the grand theme of your project might be but about what the next action is.
With enough action the grand theme will emerge.
I find, anyway.
Your mileage may vary.
The key, I have found over years of professional decision making, is often to leave the decision until the last minute.
When you’re not sure how things are going to go then keep options open.
Don’t quit your job, for example, until your side hustle is paying you more than you’re making now, or you have a contract offer for a new one.
Don’t make decisions about themes and equipment and things that will cost you time and money until you absolutely have to – because you may need to change your mind.
Start by taking action – and keep your options open.
People often achieve more by setting off than they do sitting down and making plans.
The counter to this is when you know the right thing to do.
In value investing that’s when you know something is under priced – and that’s when you commit – go hard on the dollar, as they say.
So, in a nutshell, the alternative to planning is to keep your options open most of the time and be ready to act.
Because on those rare occasions, the times when the wave comes along and lifts you up, you want to be ready to surf.