Sometimes, no plan is the best plan

Grand schemes rarely come to fruition, so often the best strategy is to be ready for opportunity when it knocks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 February, 2014, 5:37am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 February, 2014, 8:30am

Phew, we are now on the sixth day of the Lunar New Year and it's a full month since the passing of that other New Year, so enough time has elapsed for us to ignore, or should it be, conveniently forget, all those sterling resolutions we made on the cusp of the year.

Yes, I know that some people swear blind that they make resolutions and stick to them but then again some pigs can fly. Seriously though, when it comes to the world of business, new years are a menace because they attract the attention of pundits, soothsayers and all manner of "experts" who are keen to peddle their predictions and advice for what is, after all, nothing more than a date shift.

The reality is that almost all businesses run on cycles. In my business, we have predictable peaks and troughs throughout the year and knowing when they occur is helpful for planning purposes. Other businesses are subject to less predictable and longer cycles.

But however and whenever they occur, fighting cycles is a mug's game. For example, in the current depressed property market, there is little that estate agents can do other than sit it out. Businesses trading in products or services heavily dependent on the weather are very cycle-prone but they sort of know when changes of weather will occur even if exactitude is problematic and abnormal climatic events keep occurring.

None of this is an argument for fatalism in the running of business but it is a modest suggestion that some things can be planned and some can't. Moreover, there are times when you have little choice but to sit out a bad patch and prepare for better times. On the bright side, unexpectedly good things can also happen, but note that word: unexpected.

So, that's why I question why a new year is better than any other time to set about planning. Yes, I know that some people see the change of the year as little more than a pretext for all this forecasting stuff but I am suspicious of grand plans and tend to keep well away from companies and individuals who are full of them.

At the most despicable end of this spectrum was Adolf Hitler's plan for a 1,000-year Reich. Far less evil and less damaging was the failure of Enron's grand plan for world energy domination, but this too was born out of hubris. Coming back to Hong Kong, we have no end of grand plans for business initiated by the government to create Asian hubs for this, that and the other. Practically all of them have shrivelled or become laughing stocks: think of the luxury apartment complex which is supposed to be a hi-tech hub called Cyberport, or the plan for an international medical hub that floundered when it became clear that this would require foreign doctors. Then there's the plan that sort of worked, for creating an international wine hub, and that's done exactly what for the local economy?

Now consider where Hong Kong really punches above its weight without a grand government plan; the finance sector is an obvious example, but so is Hong Kong's place as an international centre for resolving legal disputes. Thankfully, all this evolved organically without the brainstorming of a bunch of bureaucrats, aided by a dubious advisory board.

And when you look at some of the world's most successful companies, you will find that not only did they start out very modestly but they came without the baggage of a plan for world domination. Think Microsoft or the success of the Red Bull energy drink, and over in my industry, that crazy guy Ray Kroc who bought out the McDonald brothers' hamburger business because he thought he just might be able to expand it all over California. The people behind these businesses had plenty of great ideas and were able to devise strategies to make them work but they most certainly did not start out with a fancy plan for global domination.

My big new year's resolution was not to make a resolution and I can confidently forecast that I will be sticking to it without difficulty. That's not to say that my company has no plans for the future. One of them, by sheer coincidence, cropped up around the New Year and may or may not reach fruition.

There will be other plans; don't ask me what because I have no idea what's likely to come up but just hope that when it does, we will have the good sense to make something of it.

Tut-tut, I hear the serried ranks of strategic planners saying. Well, tut all you like because down on the ground much of what's called strategic planning is a bunch of figures detached from reality and a lot of guff about aspirations which ignore what's actually happening. So, my dear strategic planners, you have your plans - we'll have the business.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and broadcaster