Annette Verschuren. “Only 20% of your time should be spent planning.” Photo: Raina + Wilson
If there’s one thing that will prevent you from getting results and capitalizing on your best ideas, it’s waiting for the perfect plan. I’ll go out on a limb and say that nothing kills progress like a brilliant strategy.
When I review my career, I can honestly say that any success I have experienced has had less to do with strategic planning and almost everything to do with action. I’m not saying I don’t plan, nor am I suggesting that you abandon any attempt to craft an articulate vision for your life, career or organization. Everyone needs a destination and a basic plan for reaching it. But I have observed that the main thing preventing people from reaching that desired destination is unwitting procrastination, most often in the form of the hunt for a brilliant plan.
As a leader, your job is to get results. Results aren’t the byproduct of thought, but of making decisions and taking action—quickly. Whether you are an entrepreneur launching a new business, a leader within an established company trying to improve operations or the executive director of a non-profit trying to get maximum results on a shoestring budget, the ability to quickly bring solid ideas to fruition will determine your success. Anything that prevents you from deciding and acting isn’t helpful.
MORE ACTION: 8 Steps to Stress-Free Decisions »
Opportunity has its own sense of timing, and very often that timing is different from yours. After I left my executive position in 1992 at Imasco—which had interests in tobacco, banking and restaurants—I knew I wanted to start a retail business, and I was certain I wanted not to launch an entirely new company but to bring an established retailer to Canada.
After researching Michaels, I approached them, and I was willing to invest my own hard-earned money in the venture. All of these moves might suggest that, when I finally signed on the dotted line and became the founding president of Michaels Canada, I was totally prepared and had a plan in place for exactly how I would launch.
You can see where I’m headed with this. Despite having steered myself directly into this venture, when my two partners and I signed the papers, we did not in fact have a brilliant plan for how we’d launch. Life and business don’t work that way. They both move quickly, so most of the time we’re only able to focus a few short steps in front of us. That means we rarely have the time to create the kind of elaborate plans we may believe we should have in place, because we are busy responding to the opportunity in front of us.
Any experienced retailer with a bird’s-eye view of my first six months at Michaels might have wondered if we’d still be open by the year’s end. We had an established brand, an opportunity to blow open the Canadian craft market, a few hundred thousand dollars’ worth of capital to build some new stores, and that was pretty much it. My entire plan for the launch of Michaels could fit on a single sheet of paper. My two partners and I knew two-thirds of what we needed to know in order to be successful: Brian McDowell and I had a strong handle on operations; Jerry Payton was experienced in purchasing. We knew very little about supply chain, and we couldn’t afford to invest in a sophisticated inventory-tracking system or spend the time acquiring import licences, both items typically considered must-haves for a major retail operation. What’s more, we were about to open a national retailer without our own warehouse.
We negotiated a deal with freight company Kuehne & Nagel to rent space in their warehousing facility and pay them a fee to help us manage our inventory. It was considered a risky strategy, given how critical it was to have total inventory control.
To understand why inventory control is so important, think about what it would do to a crafts retailer to not have Christmas-themed decorating supplies during the winter holiday season. Or imagine ordering twice as many wreaths and assorted Santa supplies as you need, and only discovering that you overbought in early January. You could put those Santas on sale, but by that time the market will have moved on to Valentine’s Day. Either mistake could cost you your shirt.
MORE INVENTORY CONTROL: How to Make Just the Right Amount of Product »
Relying on an outside party to handle such a crucial step was a risky thing to do. In fact, our “plan” had so many holes in it that if an MBA class had reviewed our startup strategy, most students would have considered us touch and go at best. Heck, I knew we didn’t have a great plan. But I knew we couldn’t afford to dither, wasting our time and money as we tried to come up with a better plan. We had to act. We had already tied up most of our capital in buying inventory, hiring a skeleton staff and building new locations. We were under the gun to open our stores and start generating cash.
So rather than second-guessing our mediocre plan, we focused on ensuring we were pulling it off to the absolute best of our abilities. I made a point of developing a strong relationship with our warehouse and inventory control partners at Kuehne & Nagel, because I knew the strength of that arrangement underpinned the success of our launch.
When we saw that our first location was taking forever to open, we established a new store operator position and got John DeFranco, who was then employed by Michaels, to help us create a store launch process and then use that as a checklist to expedite the launch of future stores. (After 10 years at Home Depot, DeFranco went on to become president of PetSmart Canada.) I spent no time wondering if I should have done things differently. Rather, I focused on staying present, observing what was and wasn’t working, course correcting and making sure the actions we were taking were done as well as possible.
I’m happy to report that our mediocre (at best) strategy, combined with our brilliant execution, paid off. We opened 17 stores in 26 months. After our initial store launch—a two-month process in all—we perfected execution so subsequent stores were up and running in an average of three weeks after major construction elements were in place.