I want to share a real situation with planning and decisions that are similar to what many entrepreneurs have to make. It was “timed test” involving internal coordination, customer preferences, and resource availability.
I was walking into a client’s office, in the midst mental preparation for an advisory board meeting to review current sales forecast and logistics, when my cell phone rang. It was Peter Cohan calling from Chicago. He was in the hospital and would not be able to fly back for a workshop that was scheduled for the next day. My first concern was his health and prognosis, both of which were good, although he was in a fair amount of discomfort so we kept it short.
We had about two dozen people signed up that we needed to notify, several were flying in so we needed to update them, not only that tomorrow was off but that there was a new date scheduled. But I had to put all that in a box and deal with it on the other side of the meeting I was going into. I told Peter I would call him in two an half hours and we would do some planning.
Here are what I viewed as the constraints:
- We had about two dozen people who had paid for a now canceled workshop.
- I needed to contact everyone who might be traveling pronto.
- I needed to contact the venue and let them know we were not coming.
- I needed to contact the film crew from DreamSimplicity and let them know we would not be filming.
- I needed a new date that would maximize attendance, subject to availability at our venue and Peter’s other commitments.
- I wanted to minimize customer confusion through concise communications: tell story once; present some options; and come back with a plan based on the best day for maximum attendance.
- I wanted to be a good business partner with the venue, but not lose my deposit, so priority would be to re-book with them.
You may have been here yourself. Unfortunate events can test your ability to adapt your business planning to the situation. My approach was as follows:
- Call the venue and let them know we had to re-schedule (minimize any expense they could avoid).
- Call and e-mail those attendees who were not in Silicon Valley and let them know that we had to reschedule and that I would be back to them shortly with options for a new day. I didn’t want anyone to get on a plane or drive a hundred or two hundred miles only to find out the workshop was canceled.
- Call DreamSimplicity and let them know we were re-scheduling the workshop.
- Call Peter and see what date range was for when he thought he would be able to teach and how long at most he wanted to slip the date. We decided earliest was first week in April, latest was last week in April.
- Call the venue and got the availability of the room we wanted for April.
- Present the venue availability dates to Peter and get his top four choices. I was going to do two initially but it seemed more prudent to ask for four so that we have more options as to week of the month and day of the week. The original workshop was on a Wednesday but none of the Wednesdays were available in April.
- I then presented those four choices to all attendees and asked them to indicate any that would not work, advising them that we were going to pick the day that got the most attendance. I asked for an answer the same day because the hotel had agreed to give me the day to pick the best date in April.
- At the end of the day I called the hotel and said that I hadn’t heard from everybody, which was true, and that I needed the next morning to get closure. They agreed which was a big help.
- By the next morning I had heard from everyone and most wanted an answer quickly because they would either need to re-arrange their calendar or they were holding one or more of the dates open and wanted to recycle them for other purposes as soon as they were able.
- I looked at the availability, selected April 9 as the day that allowed the most number of people to attend. I then e-mailed everyone with this date, giving them the option to attend on the new date or get a refund. I called the two people who had indicated they would not be able to make it. One decided to re-arrange their schedule and attend, the other decided to attend our next demo workshop on September 15.
- April 9 falls on the Milpitas Bootstrapper Breakfast so I arranged for Pete Tormey to facilitate there in my stead.
- We then redid the announcements on Workit and other calendars, added a new blog post, and updated the 123Signup page to reflect the new date.
Real plans anticipate a range of intermediate and final outcomes. They involve branches (“what if”) and sequels (“what next”) that anticipate varying degrees of success and failure. Successful startup plans look like decision trees, not a single sequence of tasks. Most “Business plans” are sales documents to secure funding and bear little resemblance to real operating plans. Here is my view of this plan as branches and sequels.
- Start: We need to re-schedule.
- Sequels: notify Hotel and anyone traveling to minimize disruption and unnecessary cost.
- When is hotel available, I want to minimize any loss of deposit by working with them to identify days that will work. Also by keeping the location the same I minimize the risk of an attendee deciding to cancel.
- When is Peter available in the context of hotel availability. What are his preferences. He is in a lot of pain so one conversation that gets all the answers I am likely to need for the next 24-48 hours. His preferences only come into play if two or more days have the same number of attendees but let’s get them now. Get four days so that we don’t have to go back to him or the attendees if either of two days would produce unacceptable losses (or at least a dropoff that would make us look for more options).
- When are attendees available in the context of Peter and hotel availability. Normally you might think to start here but since I don’t want to switch hotels and Peter is the only one who can teach the class this is the right priority.
- Sequels: pick the day with the highest attendee count, notify attendees, re-publish calendar announcements, update signup page.
- Sequel: wait for an hour in the lobby of the hotel in case someone didn’t get the message that class was off.
- Sequel: manage secondary conflicts with Milpitas Bootstrapper Breakfast.
- Always mentally simulate the key steps in a process or plan before committing to it as a course of action. It’s not a question of optimizing, but of making sure you have a satisfactory solution given your time and resource constraints. A decision is an irrevocable commitment of resources but understand that every communication costs time and every change can cost goodwill and lower partner and customer confidence in you.
- You cannot rely on things “working out” but have to allow for further slips, losses, and conflicts. Your plan does not have to be perfect, just good enough.
- You have to consider how to manage potential branches in a plan, they are the logical responses to a reasonable range of outcomes.
- Clear communications is critical. Keep it concise but complete. Keep your partners, suppliers, and customers in the loop as a situation develops.
- Everyone will be more understanding when you take the time to share your options and the reasons for a change. Often they can contribute creative options that you may not have considered.
- You have to minimize the spillover from problems in one area and meet as many of your commitments as practical. Do not let let worry and friction from problems in one area affect other parts of your business.
If you have faced a similar need to change plans or replan in a hurry, I would be interested to hear your about your situation and what you learned from it.