It is so widely acknowledged that a robust business plan is one of the key ingredients in small business success, it seems remarkable that anyone serious about their business could considerable it optional. For example, Business Link say, “It is essential to have a realistic, working business plan when you’re starting up a business”. A recent survey showed that small businesses were twice as likely to be successful with a written business plan as compared with those without one. The Times in their annual round up of 100 up and coming UK businesses suggest that “poor business planning” is a key reason for failure. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to find an authority that would advocate the opposite idea, a clear signal that this idea is accepted wisdom. Despite this, a recent survey shows that two thirds of small business owners run their businesses on gut instinct alone.

I had a very interesting discussion about this a couple of days ago with a good friend of mine who has run several successful small businesses in which he posited the idea of a “planning gene”. He felt that the only possible explanation for the lack of proper planning in small business was genetic.

According to his theory, the majority of people are born without the “planning gene” and this explains why so many people don’t have any written business plan, despite the overwhelming evidence of a high correlation between a robust and vigorously implemented business plan and business success. The majority of us are simply not biologically and genetically wired to plan.

This is certainly one explanation, although I have to say I have a few reservations as to the validity of his theory. I talk with small business owners about planning every day. I’m part of a small business myself. I’ve owned several small businesses over the last ten years each with varying degrees of success. In all those conversations and all that experience, this was the first (semi) serious discussion I’d had about the planning gene.

If I was to aggregate the results of the conversations I have had with actual and prospective customers on this topic, four distinctive strands emerge explaining why small business owners fail to plan. Whilst I have heard a few other explanations for the lack of effective small business planning, I am treating these as outliers and focusing on the most significant.

I’m Too Busy To Plan – More often than not, the small business owners we talk to tell us that proper planning is a luxury that only big business can afford. For them, business planning, if done at all, was a one-time event that produced a document for a bank manager or investor which is now gathering dust in the furthest recesses of some rarely opened filing cabinet. There just aren’t enough hours in the day and if forced to choose, they would do the real, physical work and leave the mental work undone, which seems to be the poor relation at best, if it is even dignified with the status of work at all.

Traditional Planning Doesn’t Work – The “I’m too busy to plan” excuse is often supplemented with this one. I’ve heard the stories of the most legendary construction overrun of all time, The Sydney Opera House, originally estimated to be completed in 1963 for $7 million, and finally completed in 1973 for $102 million, more times than I can remember. Sometimes, this idea is backed up with some actual research, such as the fascinating study by several eminent psychologists of what has been called the “planning fallacy”. It seems that some small business owners genuinely believe that mental work and planning is a bit of a con with no traction on physical reality.

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