How a Great Business Plan Will Maximize Your Risk of Failure

Added on by Alexander Osterwalder.

The business plan is a great execution tool. Yet, requiring a business plan during the early stages of idea development might maximize the risk of failure. Large organizations in particular still require business plans. That is an error. In this post we outline three reasons why companies should drop business plans in favor of a more rapid and iterative approach.

While business plans are less and less common in the startup world, they persist in large corporations. In large companies it’s not uncommon that a team of several people spends a couple of weeks developing a business plan. They will first spend time on market research. Then they will craft a detailed plan with an impressive financial spreadsheet looking 3-5 years ahead. Finally, all of this will be summarized in a beautiful slide deck to convince top leadership or investors of the brilliance of the idea.

Great business plans can look so good and have such convincing arguments that it becomes hard to doubt them. Unfortunately this false illusion of security may also maximize the risk of failure (or waste time and money at the very least). No company wants that. Let’s look at three reasons why requiring business plans is a bad idea.

1) Getting too granular too early = You risk wasting time

One of the dangers of writing a business plan is to spend too much time refining an idea before it is really proven. Unfortunately, “no business plan (however smart it looks) survives first contact with customers”, as Steve Blank the initiator of the Lean Startup movement likes to say.

Rather than refining an idea at the early stages, you should test it immediately and evolve it based on market feedback. Otherwise you risk wasting time working on refining an idea that nobody cares about. The problem is that you’ll only realize that much, much later. 

TIP: Keep your early ideas very rough (e.g. on one page with the Business Model and/or Value Proposition Canvas) and immediately test them. Gradually refine your ideas with increasing  evidence.

2) Selling an idea & plan to leadership or investors  = You risk getting locked-in

Where it starts getting dangerous is when a team sells their top leadership or investors a polished and refined business plan - before rigorously testing the underlying business model and value proposition(s) in the market.

When leadership or investors buy and finance a plan they expect that success is a mere execution problem. They expect that beautiful and detailed spreadsheet in the business plan to materialize exactly how you projected it. In other words, you just got locked into a plan that was entirely made up. You are forced to execute an idea that is yet to be proven. If you want to change direction later on, it will be difficult to convince leadership because you sold them something else.

TIP: Don't sell leadership a polished and refined business plan. Sell them an opportunity and a rigorous process that will turn your idea into an executable business model by producing market evidence. Show them how this approach will minimize the risk of failure, as opposed to a business plan which maximizes the risk of getting locked into one direction that is yet to be proven.

3) Hiring based on an idea & plan = You risk premature scaling

The biggest risk of business plans is that they may lead to premature scaling. This happens when you hire people and spend money on key resources based on a plan rather than market evidence. In other words, you get into "execution mode" before you fully finished the "search" for the right business model and value proposition(s). We wrote about this in a recent post on how Great Execution of Bad Ideas Kills Businesses

This type of premature scaling of great looking business plans can lead to enormous financial losses. My "favorite" examples are Flo TV by Qualcomm ($1+ billion loss) or Better Place, a startup that aimed at getting people to use electric vehicles ($850 million loss).

TIP: Don't invest in execution until you have strong evidence that your idea will work. Otherwise you risk premature scaling and running out of money.

Burn your Business Plan before it burns you

At Strategyzer, we are no enemies of business plans if they are used purely for execution purposes. Unfortunately we've seen too much damage from business plans used during the early stages of idea development - particularly at large organizations.

There is no place for a business plan when you are still searching for the right business model and value proposition for your idea. It's simply the wrong tool for the task and it might even lead to maximizing your risk of failure.

Business plans should be replaced by a more dynamic approach until you have sufficient evidence that your idea will work. Only then should you consider crafting a business plan. Until then, we suggest you burn your business plan before it burns you.

A business plan I burned on stage in Sao Paulo during an innovation conference

Does your organization still require business plans? What's the impact? We'd love to hear your story!