When you are setting goals related to your career or business, should you have a Plan B?
There are successful people who argue that you absolutely should not.
Actor Will Smith says,
“There is no reason to have a Plan B because it distracts from Plan A.” (1)
Sunny Nunan, founder of Core24, a business services networking company, asserts,
“Plan B’s are for chickens. Why? Because when you have no Plan B, guess what? Plan A has to work.” (2)
Researchers Jihae Shin and Katherine Milkman studied the effect of having a Plan B and summarized their findings:
“…merely contemplating a backup plan can reduce the effort you put forth to achieve a goal, thus hurting your chances of achieving it.” (3)
Despite the strong opinions like the ones above, not everyone agrees that you shouldn’t have a Plan B. Ilene Gordon, CEO of Ingredion, advises,
“Have a Plan B, because Plan A doesn’t always go well, or maybe it’s derailed by a competitor or somebody else’s new product or some type of regulation.” (4)
James A. Yorke, Distinguished University Research Professor of Mathematics and Physics, says,
“The most successful people are those who are good at Plan B.” (5)
In my coaching business, I also meet clients who are paralyzed with anxiety unless they have a Plan B. Plan B is what enables them to have sufficient centeredness to proceed with Plan A.
How do we reconcile such contradictory advice?
For people in creative professions, I suspect that the high level of challenge in achieving success means that only the most driven and committed will succeed, so those with an alluring Plan B are highly likely to abandon Plan A. To circumvent this, use a psychological technique called stress inoculation.
Stress inoculation aims to increase psychological resilience against stressors. Like inoculation in the medical sense, the idea is to deal with exposure to stress in a controlled and measured way to learn adaptive strategies for dealing with the situation in the future.
In creative careers, for instance, we can anticipate that there will be a high level of rejection. A person embarking on a creative career should expect this and prepare in advance for how they will react. They should imagine the rejection, plan a response, and line up support before the actual rejection occurs. This way, a premature flight to Plan B is less likely.
For both creative careers and for less challenging careers where the odds of succeeding are higher, I am a fan of the approach of viewing career options like attempting to win an Olympic medal. Aim for the gold (Plan A) but after a pre-determined amount of time if you haven’t succeeded, aim for the silver (Plan B). Either way, you win a medal!
In business, success is almost never linear and survival depends on the ability to pivot as circumstances change, so for entrepreneurs, a Plan A that is overly rigid will almost certainly ensure failure. But if Plan A is sufficiently broad, for example, “Be the best business services networking company,” then you can commit fully to Plan A and change the strategy to get there as market conditions change and as you acquire more information along the way.
David Kord Murray, Business Consultant and Author, says,
“Don’t pave your plans. Let them be more like water.” (6)
Even in a consulting business like mine, where I have as my business objective, “Help people achieve career happiness and success,” the method by which I achieve that has changed dramatically over the years. When I started, my only business method was meeting clients face-to-face in one office location. Now, I mostly work via Skype and telephone. The objective is the same but the process evolved to reflect a changing world. Does that mean I gave up Plan A? No, it just means my Plan A adapted to new market conditions.
Even if the market conditions stay the same for you (although they probably won’t), your Plan A also might change because your needs or interests change. That’s why career changes happen. Someone decides they want something different so they reinvent.
Viewed in this way, the tension between the competing views about Plan B is resolved. Whether you view your plan as an evolved Plan A or as a Plan B, the results are the same:
Create a Plan A, evaluate progress as you go, adapt to changing circumstances, evolve Plan A or migrate to Plan B, repeat.
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