How my first business plan in China failed

One thing that I learned in China is that sometimes it’s better to have a direction and get started than to have a plan the size of a phone book and not start at all. Or start too late. As we speak competitor X is passing the ball on our side of the field and two fresh players have entered the market. No time to waste.

I used my first 8 weeks as a retail director in China to write a business plan. I kept the board informed and when I was finished they approved my plan: “Good work, you are so professional”.

The next day everyone got back to where they left work the day before. My plan was merely used as a compass rather than an execution guideline. One day just as I was about to explode my face with anger one of our many directors placed his hand on my shoulder. He smiled and said:

“In China we cannot plan faster than change will appear. Relax, have another tea”.

Oftentimes the lack of effective middle management, unwillingness to make decisions independently and the disability to look more than 2 steps ahead will force me to spend time on the battlefield myself.

The personal challenge is not to become the striker and the goalie. In best case I am the coach who gives the ball a final push towards the striker when the referee looks away. Then I quickly whisper in the strikers’ ear how to kick the ball from that position since he seems to have forgotten. He hits it hard though, harder than ever before and puts pressure on the goalie for the first time. But it’s not a score, it’s halftime. Tea time.

10 of my China-learnings to consider when writing and executing a business plan:

  1. Unless you work for a multinational or in a multicultural team I advice to write a draft business plan and get the main objectives, time lines and budgets approved,

  2. In my case I work for a fully Chinese company with 1500 co-workers out of which 2 speak English so I now choose to write business plans for myself and communicate details of the plan on a need-to-know basis.

  3. Chinese people like short-term and most people are not used to comprehend information beyond 3 months in their schedule.

  4. Instead you need to manage from the ground and go through every detail on a weekly basis. Repeat and check regularly,

  5. It is true that many things change along the way so you need to have a flexible mindset and stay away from getting frustrated. Consider it an opportunity to improve the plan as you go. Frustration only expresses your lack of calm and control. In China this is considered loosing face and therefore makes things worse.

  6. Make sure that your main objectives are very clear and can be articulated in a few sentences; I call these the mountain.

  7. Don’t loose sight of that mountain, whatever happens just make sure that you are moving towards that mountain. Only play hardball if the project looses sight of it.

  8. In all other cases; pick your battles and accept detours, slowdowns and people.

  9. Appreciate the people around you. Without them you are nowhere.

  10. And most important; enjoy the ride.

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