Founders should be optimistic or what’s the point, right? But founders also should assume their current plan is wrong. They just don’t know why — yet.
Being a founder is one big dichotomy — having a plan and at the same time believing it is wrong is an incredibly hard place to exist. It is one of the reasons most first time founders find themselves mentally unprepared for the job.
So how does a founder get comfortable executing a plan they expect to be wrong? How is possible to live in a space of that much fluidity and hypocrisy without losing your mind?
Founders, more than any other professional existence, have to embrace a state of perpetual flexibility, I write more about it in my book, “The Founders Manual”. The challenge for founders is that team members, customers, partners, and investors don’t want to participate in a plan that a founder doesn’t believe in and that is already assumed to be wrong. Founders have to operate and communicate as though their current plan for the company is, without question, going to work. Sure, a few adjustments here and there but for the most part, the founder sees the future and knows the path to get there. They must tell a compelling story based on this conviction, but still knowing fully well that the path to these outcomes is unlikely what they are saying or believing in that moment.
This one of the reasons that imposter syndrome is so prevalent among founders. Founders know they are figuring it out and making it up as they go along. Founders also know they are just as likely, if not more likely, to be mostly wrong about all of it. Imposter syndrome is a result of them knowing deep down that they are telling a mostly fictional story.
We hear about pivots all the time as part of startups. Why do some startups make it through a pivot or even multiple pivots when others don’t? I would make the case that the ones that make it through are neither surprised nor overly frustrated with a pivot. They assumed they were wrong in some critical areas of the business and that a pivot would be inevitable and unavoidable. They didn’t know when the pivot would occur or why, but they knew something different was just around the corner. There are some startups that can’t survive even the smallest pivot — those are the startups that assumed, from the beginning, their plan was right. They are not mentally, emotionally, financially, or operationally prepared and capable of pivoting when they need to. The assumption of being right becomes an anchor that doesn’t allow them to move as quickly as needed, if at all. The belief of being right becomes more entrenched for some founders than that of doing what is right. Founders who need to be right are unlikely to make required pivots and their companies are likely to fail as a result.
Being a founder is much like being an adventure guide. Adventure guides have a plan for the excursion to be enjoyable and safe for everyone. What adventure guides also know is that some stuff is going to happen that is going to be less than ideal and it will force them to react to and manage uncertainty. Adventure guides don’t get paid to work the plan. Adventure guides get paid to deal with what happens that isn’t part of the plan. Founders believe their primary job is to come up with and work a plan, but their real job is to assume the plan they have created is going to turn out to be wrong and they will need to identify why and how, as quickly as possible, to be able to form a new plan.
Founders want to believe in a plan because a plan and the belief in a plan feels like some degree of stability in constantly choppy waters. If a founder doesn’t have a plan they believe in, what else do they have? Can a founder really believe in what they are doing if they assume their plan is wrong? Yes. Founders can have total belief in the value of what they are trying to accomplish and who they are trying to accomplish it for, without being married to the precise manner of accomplishing it. Founders who are directionally committed and yet plan with flexibility, increase their odds of success exponentially over those whose plan is rigid.
So Founders, it’s time to be more like adventure guides. Know the desired destination, have a plan to get there, but also be prepared for the plan to change along the way. Bring along a compass and be more concerned about making progress toward the destination than taking a straight line to get there. Going on an adventure, like a startup, is not always going to go according to plan and it is the founder’s ability to adapt to a new plan that matters more than any individual plan.