Your Thats Are Killing Your Ifs

I’m not even sure who is writing this, frankly. It doesn’t sound like me. I’m normally the advocate for understanding your business well and aiming for the right metrics. It almost sounds like opposite day or April 1. I want you to know that it feels that way to me, too. I’m nervous.

I’d like to make a case for less or no business planning in certain circumstances. I want you to forget about the consequences sometimes and just do what your gut is telling you.

It’s a fair assumption that most of you have good instincts and your gut can be trusted. You’ve made some of those big moves in the past and–generally–most of the people who know you well were on your side. “Heck, yeah. That makes sense. Go for it.” Or, “It’s about time! Isn’t that what I’ve been telling you?”

But then some of you do need a gut recalibration. You’re always talking yourself into crazy things and hoping everyone around you will suspend their disbelief. You folks shouldn’t be reading this because I don’t want to encourage your struggle with reality. The rules of gravity do apply to you and you would do well to think more, not less, about the consequences.

So I want to have a candid talk with the rest of you, who understand reality all too well, who do careful planning before they pull the trigger, and who would otherwise be labeled as responsible entrepreneurs.

You’re the folks who are thinking too much. You’re letting possible consequences round the rough edges off your decisions. To you I’d say to quit aiming for the safe middle and either blow this thing out of the water or get your ass kicked.

You do come close to this sort of recklessness from time to time, after all, but it’s usually when you’re tired or mad. What you’re really thinking or what’s really important comes flying out. Like the inner tube you keep holding under water, what you’re really thinking launches out of the water like a rocket as the frustration finally matches your fear of being honest and you drop the pretense.

Pricing is a great example of this. When you want or need that project, you price it lower than you should because you’re afraid of losing it. When you’re already pretty busy and you don’t feel any panic about getting it, you’ll price it higher. If the prospect says yes, you’re fine. If they say no, you’re fine. It just doesn’t matter quite as much at that point because you don’t care all that much either way. The money would be nice. So would not working stupid hours.

Alright, now I’m going to say it. “What would you attempt to do if you could not fail” has to be one of the most inane phrases on the planet, and there are a lot of inane ones to compete with it, so that’s really saying something. In my mind, I wouldn’t even be interested in doing something where failure wasn’t an option. Well, I take that back. I’d climb a ladder more cheerfully if I knew I could not fall. I’d relearn the piano if it was a slam dunk. I’d dress the way I want if I knew no one could laugh at me. And so on.

But unlike that statement, I’m not talking here about failure. I’m talking about business consequences. There’s a great app called IFTTT, which stands for If This, Then That. It’s an automation trigger that can be set up to do thousands of things. When I leave work, adjust the thermostat so that it’ll be cool when I get home. If someone answers an RSVP to my party, add their contact information to this Google doc. If I take a picture of Suzy, have it print on Grandma’s printer at home. The focus is on the “if” which then triggers a “that.”

When it comes to business, many of you focus more on the “that” than the “if” in the equation, and I want you to stop that. It goes something like this:

  • If we don’t play by this new rule that procurement has devised, we’ll lose the account.
  • If we focus the agency in this area, the creative team will revolt.
  • If we dismiss this client, we’ll have to give their money back.
  • If we have that tough discussion with each other as partners, it’s going to get tense.
  • If we follow our own rule about cultural fit and help someone move on, one of us will have to step in and take over that job again.
  • If we address the performance issues while she’s pregnant, it’ll look cruel or we’ll get sued.
  • If we single out that newer, younger employee, I don’t know how Laura…who has been here 16 years…will take it.
  • If we give ourselves another bonus, how will Tom in accounting feel about getting 3% again this year.

Stop it already. You’re driving yourself crazy, and sometimes you’re driving me crazy in the process. I want to help you do a little less thinking and planning and a little more doing the right thing. In fact, I would offer this observation: there is an amazing peace and rest in just doing the right thing, following your better instincts, and not worrying about the consequences.

I’m not just suggesting that you don’t plan for the consequences. I’m actually hoping that you’ll not even think about them. What’s the worst that can happen? You close this thing and start over or go work for someone else. Or maybe you have to join Chris Farley in a van by the river. Or maybe you travel Chile on $50/day for a year. Maybe even in Chris’ van.

With the entrepreneurial support system that we enjoy, it is actually much harder to fail than to succeed. Success, especially if we’re a little loose with the definition, is within easy reach of most people. If you accept risk, can articulate several thoughts in a row, and are somewhat disciplined, you’re going to make it. You probably already have some definition of success for yourself and your IFTTT thinking is about how far off that definition any particular possibility might take you.

Listen, I would bet on almost all of you, and I love the opportunity to help you define and then reach your goals. I also greatly admire courageous principals who don’t let too many “thats” kill their “ifs” before they’ve even had the chance to see the light of day.

Here’s what this has meant for me recently:

  • Gently explained to an event organizer and great collaborator that I can’t do it for free even though the conference has been a significant source of work for me.
  • Called it quits after three hours into a two and one-half day client engagement, made the long trip home, and returned their money because I didn’t think they were really ready for change and I didn’t think I could fake it that long. They are good people just not ready for the diagnosis…and then the prescription.
  • Referred a long-term client to a competitor because they are better at what really needs to happen even though my bones were screaming to hang onto the work.

An outside advisor like me comes into your firm and we bring several valuable things:

  • Perspective. It’s hard to see your own label when you’re in the jar.
  • Insight. There’s no need to reinvent the flat tire over and over again.
  • Courage. Sometimes you just need a push. You need permission from just one more person.

I’d say that most of you should never hire an advisor and you’ll be just fine, thank you very much. You’d do a lot better if sometimes you thought less about the consequences and did what you know I’m going to tell you anyway!

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