ONE OF THE MORE difficult challenges facing businesses today is determining the best balance between preparation and execution of a project or program. Too often, we drag out the preparation of an important initiative, beyond the critical window of time, when it is still effective for the original objective. Alternatively, we may proceed too quickly with an execution and neglect vital preparation details, thus causing us to fail to achieve the objective. What is the correct balance between preparation and execution?

The secret to balance lies in the understanding of the stages of your business’ development or “life-cycle” of your business. These stages are: “Startup” when the business is initially being organized and launched; “Development” when the business is focused on a steady growth plan from its starting size to a target operating level; “Maintenance” when a business reaches a relative plateau in size and scale; “Declination” when a business is shrinking steadily due to a number of possible circumstances; and “Turn-Around” when a business goes through a significant reorganization to reinitiate fresh momentum much like a startup business. 

Businesses that are just getting started and need to move from square-one to some level of revenue momentum in order to achieve a financially sustainable position need to over-execute, even at the risk of more limited preparation. Preparation, however, should never be ignored or slighted in the process. Execution is the critical variable that leads the formula. 

As you migrate from “Startup” to “Development,” you organize a plan-of-action and proceed down a path that may require continuous adjustment until you achieve the necessary outcomes and momentum. This can be frustrating if you need to adjust more times than anticipated, and you expend more capital than planned. I often reflect on a comment from Thomas Edison, who said, “I have learned over a hundred ways how not to make a light bulb.” His quote serves as an example of the extensive executions in pure volume that may be required in the “Development” stage of a business. Knowing that in most cases, capital is limited, it is critical to execute a pace that reaches a positive outcome before capital is depleted. Therefore, it is understood that you may need to limit the time in preparation, out of the necessity, to execute more initiatives in the time available with limited capital.  In the “Startup” stage, you acquire significant knowledge by taking action. In short, losing small battles and learning from it often wins the war. The key is to learn and adjust, not make the same mistakes repeatedly. Small degrees of preparation shortfalls are more than offset by the ability to execute more initiatives.

As a business matures and becomes more established, the “Maintenance” stage of business needs a different balance to the process. With age comes a new variable: experience. As such, there is more accumulated knowledge from the prior “Development” stage of the business. There are likely more established components of the business that would be negatively impacted by any preparation errors with a new initiative. There are more definitive established customers and programs that might be jeopardized by an initiative that is poorly conceived. Therefore, in more established and mature businesses, it is important to be thorough in the preparation process and understand all the complex impacts to the entire existing business model. 

The larger danger here is to get so deep into the preparation process that the execution never happens. In these situations, it is imperative to build a project timeline that delineates each step of the preparation process into a definitive deliverable with a specific deadline. Then, at each scheduled deadline, there is an opportunity to assess the continuing viability of the initiative and determine if you will amend the plan, abandon the plan, or continue toward the next step and possible execution. Compartmentalization allows for close examination of each facet, in order to more easily identify issues at a magnified level. The task of trying to identify an issue is much more daunting if a company with multiple divisions or appendages is being analyzed holistically. In more established businesses, this process often moves more slowly because the urgency felt in a startup or developing business has been replaced with a greater tolerance for planning, meeting, discussing and debating to protect the success of the existing core business. The key here is to accept the nature of a more elaborate preparation process, but manage it to execution with a clear timeline management process. 

For businesses that have become too complacent and failed to adjust to any of the necessary changes to maintain their success, they often move into a “Declination” stage of business. In this stage, a business has been negatively impacted by changes in the business environment or failed to adjust to changes in various aspects of their market. The “Declination” stage usually continues until the necessary changes are implemented that address the fundamental causes of the decline. In short, stop the problem from getting worse, then solve the problem. The challenge in this stage of business is that the existing management often has difficulty seeing beyond the symptoms of the decline and misses the actual root causes. Egos, corporate politics, and ingrained habits make fundamental change difficult to execute. This is a time when very candid and thorough analysis and planning is the most critical to determine root causes. Often, outside resources with a fresh perspective are necessary to establish an effective plan of action that stops the decline and reestablishes growth.

If the business is able to reestablish momentum or a radical change occurs with ownership and/or management that implements an effective reorganization plan, the business moves into the “Turn-Around” stage and begins to implement actions that are similar to a startup and developing business that is focused on rapid growth and momentum. In the “Turn-Around” stage of business, things must happen rapidly and decisively to create the necessary reversal of momentum from the recent “Declination” stage to a fresh new growth cycle of the business.     

The point to remember, regardless of the stage of your business, is that the speed of business is always relative to where you are in that stage. If you are struggling to achieve momentum as a startup, you need to push the envelope on rapid execution, accepting some measured and limited risk in the preparation process. It’s all about moving, taking action, and adjusting along the way until you reach a financially sustainable level. In a more established business stage, you need to protect the core model while you execute new initiatives. A slower pace on execution is acceptable to protect the impact to the core business, but don’t let yourself get caught in a failure to execute. Failing to execute could cause the business to slip into the “Declination” stage and set it on a negative course. A project timeline is a valuable tool to keep the process on track and focused to a conclusion. The key is to pay attention to the stage of your business now, where you are headed, and respond appropriately to the speed of business to meet or exceed your goals for success.