Execution versus Planning: Fire and Water or Yin and Yang?

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Execution versus Planning

Startups are supposed to be dynamic and fast-paced. Environments change, people change, swim or drown — that is the credo. In such chaotic environments, it is no wonder that many startups (and even businesses in general) feel under so much pressure to “do stuff”, that they simply feel like they do not have the time to pause and plan their actions first.

Furthermore, whether looking at business plans or product plans, history is full of examples where grand plans turned out to be terrible ideas when implemented. It is easy, therefore, to believe that planning is a waste of time and it is much better to take an experimental approach to “just do it”. After all, one of the most successful sports companies in the world became very successful with exactly that motto.

At Silicon Straits, we can see a lot of similarities — some of our plans never turn into reality, and some of the plans which are implemented turn out to be poor ideas. However, I would argue that the appropriate planning still is essential for success, the key being an understanding of what “appropriate” means.

As one example, almost all of our most successful partnerships and efforts are not the result of a careful multi-year planning approach to business development but rather the result of “one thing leading to another” and “a guy knowing a guy…” In isolation, this might even seem more like luck than skill. However, in reality there is a clear pattern and plan which we work towards in order to keep creating such opportunities.

At Silicon Straits, we keep investing heavily into building our end-to-end product development capabilities. This allows us to enter into a number of complementary partnerships where strong partners can fully rely on us “taking care of the product” while they build the business — each side focusing on doing what they do best. We cannot exactly predict which products we will be building in one, two or five years but we know that we will have the development capabilities to work on impactful products.

Planning at Silicon Straits

With such simple plan in mind, the next crucial step lies in the execution of such plan. For the above example, the execution simply means continuously building different products, sharpening our skills and experience there and learning to identify what the key components are for us to excel and our partnerships to become successful. One important lesson of ours has been that we can provide most value if we fully control the product development process vs just providing part of the engineering, even if as part of a much bigger team. We learn more, improve more and provide more value by taking on end-to-end products instead of just delivering a mobile app for an entire solution, only a small piece of the backend or even just providing a few engineers in a certain technology. Such executional observations go back into our planning which refine the approach. One key requirement hereby is that the transparency in the organisation needs to be high as the different people and stakeholder need to have clear visibility into what’s happening in the different areas.

As can be seen, even though for many people plan and execution have a dichotomous relationship — in our experience, they rather belong closely together and should highly influence each other. This seems to be an increasingly widespread realization. It can be witnessed not only in software development—through the movement from the long-haul waterfall approach to rapid smaller bursts of planning and execution through agile methodologies, but also in general business where the traditional 50-page massive business plan is being replaced by smaller, more lightweight planning to reduce feedback cycles.

The biggest advantage of such shift is that it allows for optimizing across the three variables that used to be declared as incompatible in traditional academia: time, money and quality. Mistakes are almost always cheapest and fastest to fix if they have not been made yet in the real world, i.e. by identifying them in the planning phase. This helps reduce both development cost and time whilst improving the output quality. We all have found ourselves in situations where we were under so much pressure to get a job done that we ended up trying to force something to work for a whole day, just to realize at the end that had we taken a step back and thought about the problem for half an hour, we probably could have solved it much faster. A little bit of planning can go very far.

The opposite is very true as well though — planning meetings and annual budgets have such a bad reputation with “do-ers” for a good reason. More often than not, they take up so much time with limited useful outcome that everybody is left at the end wondering where all that time went. The incremental return on planning activities rapidly declines. This becomes even more the case as plans take on a longer and longer time horizon. These almost always have to assume certain parameters which are outside of the direct control of the involved parties, yet such parameters are almost never static. Whether you like it or not, todays’ plans are extremely unlikely to remain as good as they seem today during the next months and years. You can ignore this and “stick with the plan” because it was a “good, thoroughly researched” plan. This is what many larger companies can do as the increasing deviations of planned environment versus real environment do not directly threaten their core survival but rather only limit the effectiveness of any planned activities. Yet, we find a far better approach than dismissal or ignorance is to simply accept and even embrace this reality by never assuming a plan to be final. Rather, a plan should be used as a tool to approach a situation and ensure sufficient thought has been put into it without shying away from updating or even scrapping it should the original assumptions prove to be wrong or require changes.

The key to all of this in our experience, therefore, lies in a few observations:

  1. Do not become too busy with “doing” so that you do not have any time left to plan.
  2. Do not become too busy with planning so that you do not have any time left to “do”.
  3. By cutting down cycle times and improving the feedback loop between planning and doing you can optimize the above balance.
  4. Accept and embrace the fact that plans are transient without letting this undercut the importance of planning per se.

Such approach has served us well over our tumultuous past years and has helped take us to where we are today. Despite the plans we have for the future, it would be naive of us to believe they all will become a reality no matter what — yet it is the successful balancing of planning and doing that creates rapid change and which we are convinced will continue to lead us into new exciting waters. At least that is our plan!