Planning 2022 for your startup, apply some contrarian thinking: 2+2=5

The well-known 2+ 2=5 idiom captured my thinking as I was shaping my approach to planning for 2022. Whilst we may treat is an absurdist statement, for me it’s captures the folly of spending hours sweating over creating a detailed business and financial plan for the next 12 months. As 2020 gave little guidance to 2021, so will 2021 offer scant insight into 2022, such is the disruption and uncertainty we continue to face from the global pandemic.

The mathematically incorrect phrase is best known for its use in the dystopian novel 1984 by George Orwell. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is writing in his secret diary, and ponders it as a statement of Big Brother philosophy, where the ruling government expected the citizens to believe everything they were told and reject what they once knew to be true.

Whether or not belief in such a consensus reality makes the lie true, by a way of doublethink, for me it was a starting point: we all set out believing our planning assumptions and approach will be true, but given the topsy-turvy times we live in, maybe we need to think different and stop thinking as always have. For example, if I was to ask you to close your eyes and imagine the sun setting on a beach, odds are your image was the clichéd one – a warm tropical island, framed by coconut trees, a wide sandy beach, as opposed to, say, a dark, wind-whipped picturesque pebble beach on the north Wales coast.

But I’m an advocate of bucking convention, being contrarian. As George Bernhard-Shaw said, The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself, therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. So whilst there is, unromantically, much to be said for doing the things the timeworn ‘best practice’ way, I advocate contrarianism on the approach to business planning, and here’s what is shaping my thinking for 2022.

1. You don’t have to think big, just do it In Built to Last, Jim Collins introduced us to Big Hairy Audacious Goals, his term for the ambitious long-term goals that he argued galvanised success. It seems the term is rolled out in every discussion of good business plans, but the problem is that the excitement and boldness stirred up by such endeavours often dissipates quickly in the face of the day-to-day running of business. Worse, such big-picture thinking, telling yourself something is epic, often leads to disappointment if the objective isn’t reached. As psychologist John Eliot wrote in his book Overachievement, Nothing discourages the concentration necessary to perform well more than worrying about the outcome.

Takeaway for 2022: Like the formula for contentment (happiness = reality – expectations), it’s often better to just focus on what the next step is if you really want to get things done. Forget audacious. Just do it.

2. Hire more introverts On the surface, introverts don’t seem to have the makings of great energisers in your business. Social interaction tires them, they don’t like to push people, and they don’t tend to contribute vocally to meetings or brainstorming sessions.

But there are upsides: Introverts tend to demonstrate a higher degree of sensitivity in emotional interactions, they are more likely to be experts in their field, they are less likely to be yes-men or women, and as for managing people, they do better than extroverts when the staff itself is full of go-getters.

Takeaway for 2022: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking is seriously understated. Appreciate the way they internalise their energy, create the conditions to harness their contribution.

3. Focus on execution, relax the innovation mantra We’re planning for the meta-verse. Oh look, a bandwagon, let’s join the immersive digital world. Few things are as unquestioned as the notion that innovation is the path to success. Innovate or die!

For me this innovate-at-all-costs is in the same handbook of urban folklore as the importance of the elevator pitch, which emerged from inventor Elisha Otis’s 1850’s dramatic demonstration of his innovation – a safety brake that kept elevators from falling during a cable failure – set a new bar for colourful, efficient salesmanship.

It’s simply bat-shit-crazy, follow the Yellow-Brick Road. Yes, original thinking and pitching your startup are important, but unless you make it happen, it’s Emperor’s New Clothes. The upsides of unoriginality are clear: followers let innovators lead the charge and make the costly mistakes, and if they’re smart, incorporate the lessons learned into a better product.

Takeaway for 2022: In his book Copycats, Oded Shenkar argues We need to change the mindset that execution is an embarrassing nuisance. rather, it’s a rare and complex capability, one we could all do with cultivating. Take heed.

4. Avoid the zombie apocalypse thinking, be future positive Decisions aren’t hard, it’s the moments after that are. You live with a decision, they come with you. A decision is a guess about later, so don’t think about now, it is the wrong measure of the moment. Later is the right one. Focus on the future. How will it feel when it’s real? When nerves settle, the outcome comes along. Time will tell, it always does.

It’s important to have a positive mindset when making decisions, being a realistic-optimist is the right balance. We all have too many decisions to make in our startups, so don’t get stuck in the mire of downsides and try fixing everything that doesn’t work. Instead, focus on creating a future positive outcome and stretching yourself on the handful of things that will make a notable difference.

Takeaway for 2022: Make decisions on stuff that you believe will have an impact and will take you to where you want to be. Everything else can wait.

5. Rethink your relationship with time How often do you say to yourself I just don’t have the time? But people just use the excuse, I’m too busy. If you want something, you have to reprioritise what you’re doing so you have time for it. Figure out which of the things you spend time on could be reduced or eliminated.

There is a huge difference between time and attention. If you realise that you’re too busy to do something, you shouldn’t say I don’t have the time. What you don’t have is more attention. Attention is a far more limited resource than time. My mind fills up with a few key projects and that’s it. I’m absorbed by those. That’s where my attention is. Had I made 20 minutes here and there, I’d be physically present in that moment on other things, but mentally I’d be elsewhere. Time and attention aren’t the same thing. They’re barely related.

Takeaway for 2022: prioritise your attention on the things that matter, not your time. You can control your attention, not your time.

6. What I think, not what I thought Have a clear sense of direction, where you’re heading, some big picture ideas, but no rigid, fixed plans beyond that. Don’t get hard wired – because within a couple of weeks, your business plan is no longer relevant.

Like a sailor on an expedition aiming for a distant shore, tack with the prevailing winds, be agile. The big advantage to figuring it out as you go is that you can constantly adjust. Turn the rudder as often as necessary. This helps you avoid making big mistakes. Incremental progress, adjust to the prevailing winds, you don’t have to make big adjustments because you can’t actually drift far off course. Yes, we get things wrong, but by limiting our downside risk it’s a relatively quick adjustment to get it right.

When you make it up as you go, you get to do what you think, not what you thought. All business plans are rooted in the past, they’re never what you think right now, they’re what you thought back then, ‘best guesses’ about the future. I know a whole lot more about today, today, than I did three months ago. Why not take advantage of that reality? I don’t want to be locked into my previous mind. This approach lets you rethink your relationship with your circumstances as you stand today, not when you wrote your plan.

Takeaway for 2022: Have a clear sense of purpose and direction, but think in the moment; live in the reality of your relationship with your circumstances as they present themselves.

7. Focus on the only metric that matters: would I do that again? I’ve never been one to just focus on numbers. Yes, keep a close eye on customer and cash metrics – growth, speed and trends – but that’s the extent of my number gazing. Of course, don’t fly blind, ensure core data is available for basic reporting, but instead go back to what made you launch your startup in the first place: instinct, and ask yourself, Would I want to do that again?

This one simple question eliminates everything else, and the one simple answer answers everything that matters. It’s really a simple yes or no question. Ask it about marketing decisions, product decisions, pricing decisions, and process decisions. Ask it about easy decisions and hard ones. This one simple question cuts right through the noise and exposes what’s impacting the velocity of your startup.

Takeaway for 2022: Trust your entrepreneurial instincts and don’t over rely upon complex dashboards, identify ‘what is working’ and focus on developing these attributes at scale.

8. Focus on the obvious, the easy, and the possible Much of the tension in a startup comes from trying to balance the obvious, the easy, and the possible. Figuring out which things go in which bucket is critical to understanding how to drive growth.

Shouldn’t everything be obvious? No, there’s always a lot to think about, but can you distil things down to a core and focus on making them the core of what makes you stand out? Next, the things that are easy are the things that provide little friction and you want to make them as efficient as possible on a wash-rinse-repeat basis, don’t over think them.

Finally, the things that are possible. What could we do? What if? Possible is usually the trickiest because the realistic list of things that should be possible is often significantly longer than the list of things that should be obvious or easy. Instead of making them possible, maybe not making them at all is the right call.

It takes a lot of practice, thinking, analysis and debate to implement this approach. But once you’re able to see the buckets clearly, you’re on your way to building a more impactful startup.

Takeaway for 2022: Find an approach to strategic thinking and planning that is simple and effective, one that takes a holistic view of your venture and enables the entire team to be part of the process.

People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, said George Orwell, which really captures the essence of creating the business plan – you’re just writing down what you want to happen based on what you can see ahead. Reality is that 2022 is mired with uncertainty, so let’s keep it simple: plans are worthless, but planning is everything. The watering hole of hype and speculation should start to run dry if you’ve got any sense at all.

Be a pragmatic optimistic in the face of 2+2=5 and the unknown unknowns, reunite yourself with the fundamentals and proven points in your business model.  Don’t join the bandwagon of larger-than-life founders chasing larger-than-reality total addressable markets – they will become a point of remorse, not promise. 

Don’t blindly follow other people’s direction. Draw your own path in 2022, define what a startup life worth living means to you and you only. Take risks, take chances, but create from where you are with what you have. Plan your own way for your own business.

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