Always Have Plan B Ready When You Launch Plan A

“Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.” – Jonathan Swift (Thoughts on Various Subjects, 1711) 

For much of my career, I was a pedal-to-the-metal product developer. I’d get an idea, talk it over with someone smart, and then, if it still seemed like a good idea, put it into action as soon as humanly possible. From go-ahead day to the day the results were in, my approach was “full speed ahead.”

Enthusiasm is a valuable emotion, and determination is a necessary trait for success. But neither or both of those qualities will make a bad idea work. In fact, positive thinking (and feeling) can sometimes blind you to signals that your great idea isn’t working. It is precisely because of my tendency to push hard on good ideas that I’ve developed the countervailing discipline of creating a Plan B.

Over the years, I have trained myself to recognize when what I thought to be good ideas are actually bad. (There are plenty of signs — but unless you are looking out for them, they are easy to ignore.)

So the first step is to see the writing on the wall, and the next is to immediately switch to another course of action before you lose a ton of money and months (or even years) of time and energy.

You’ll be much better at both of these critical business-survival skills (recognizing when your ideas are not working and reacting swiftly/smartly) if you establish a bailout scheme — a Plan B — at the outset of the project.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that failure won’t happen to you.

I can tell you stories about great projects that failed: a “brilliant” idea for a new record club that cost me $125,000; a “can’t-fail” celebrity health newsletter that sucked up an astonishing $780,000 before I gave up on it; a perfume business that was “absolutely sure to work” that wasted $85,000 of my (and my partners’) money.”

When Ted Turner was planning CNN, he found that he had done such a good job promoting the idea that his partners and executives weren’t willing to even entertain the idea that it might fail. Since he knew full well the value of being prepared for failure, he kept asking the question “What if it fails?” until his associates were too tired to resist and put together a fallback plan.

CNN started off terrifically, and when the company hit financial problems seven years later, they already had a solution. In this case, it was the sale of a portion of the business to cable operators. Turner’s early insistence on a Plan B allowed the crisis to be overcome without anyone breaking a sweat. (For more on this, see “At Their Knee,” by Rifka Rosenwein, in the October 2001 issue of Inc. magazine.)

What is your most important current project? Do you have a Plan B?

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]