GUEST VIEW: Why you shouldn’t have a long-range business plan

By Dr. Roger Parrott

COVID-19 is the most straightforward example of why traditional planning is ineffective. Did your business plan include a global pandemic? Did anyone’s? Of course not! But we all dealt with it, rapidly made adjustments, and even found ways to significantly improve our “normal business” — even though dramatic changes across the globe were not included in the five-year plan of a single business leader.

When the virus hit, every long-range plan was tossed in the trash, and we all became stronger leaders because we couldn’t depend on a pre-determined plan to cope with this challenge. Instead, this “opportunity of crisis” required us to provide courageous leadership through it. And most importantly, we all became more dependent on our core mission for the future rather than leaning on our carefully crafted plans.

The jarring and speedy adjustments we made during COVID-19 were a forced push into what I’ve defined as Opportunity Leadership. It’s a model of leadership that, for me as a Christian, begins and ends with complete trust in God for direction. It allows future destinations to be ordered by God’s hand and loosens our iron grip on the wheel of control. When we embrace it, we no longer need to manipulate our efforts and circumstances to engineer outcomes that force pre-determined destinations to be reached.

Opportunity Leadership is grounded in waiting in anticipation for opportunities to develop that mesh seamlessly with our mission, gifting, and capacity—propelling us to purposeful destinations. As a result, we become leaders who hone traits enabling us to create an organizational culture that responds to new opportunities with expediency, adeptness, and energy.

The metaphor of a powerboat versus a sailboat draws an image illuminating the dramatic difference between traditional long-range planning and Opportunity Leadership. As leaders, we have a fundamental choice to make—and although the answer is easy, the implementation is difficult:

1. Would we rather try to achieve a set of ambitious goals by revving up the engines of our organizational powerboats to create the best programs, structures, benchmarks, and future our well-informed collective thinking can imagine?


2. Would we rather find our destination in sailboats, prepared and equipped to catch the wind of God to go only wherever it might take us?

While the second choice is clearly our desire, too often, we plan, work, and lead as if our direction is totally dependent on the power we can generate and the best course we can envision. We may feel proud when our powerboats are big, well built, and polished, but even a small, poorly crafted, and worn sailboat will outdistance a powerboat every time—because only the sailboat can catch the wind of God.

In the spring of 2020, when your business assumptions and your long-range plan were scuttled, you began to innovate, move with speed, adjust on the fly. In doing so, you trusted God for the future more than ever before and saw opportunities and solutions develop that you never imagined. As awful as the coronavirus pandemic lockdown has been, it pushed us to a new level of speed, and broke us free from many assumptions that restrained our consideration of new opportunities. Yes, retail stores and restaurants can serve customers while keeping their doors closed, churches don’t have to have in-person services to help people, and classrooms can effectively meet virtually. Uber and Airbnb were not technological breakthroughs. They were the invention of those who looked beyond assumptions and considered providing the same service in ways that broke free from conformity limitations. They believed that some people would be willing to drive a stranger in their own car or let them stay in the guest room of their house.

New opportunities are not missed because of a lack of capacity, strengths, or skills. They are squandered because most organizations are simply too slow to make decisions and act. I am convinced most would rather live in mediocrity than grapple with a speed of change that pushes them into uncertainty.

Opportunities are moving targets. You can’t freeze everything until you’ve got all your ducks in a row to make your best decision. If that’s your approach, by the time you’re ready, the opportunity will have passed, and your slow pace will have made the decision for you.

Some leaders are prone to shy away from opportunities demanding speed because we assume small and under-resourced organizations can’t do what more extensive name-brand operations tackle. We conjecture that whatever it takes to operate with speed is something we don’t possess.

I’d argue the opposite position. Yes, more prominent entities have market presence and deeper pockets, but smaller businesses are much more agile and can move at a speed-big operation can’t generate.

  • Small does not make us inferior. We have a lean running team with fewer segmented experts and more collaborative generalists.
  • Underfunded does not make us incapable. We have a bank account guided by careful choices instead of surpluses.
  • Unknown does not make us ineffective. We have a deep level of service substituted for a high profile.

Convinced we will never have their resources or reach, we envy market leaders while cowering from the speed demanded to capture opportunities. But don’t focus on your neighbor’s opportunities – trust that God will bring right-fit opportunities singularly designed for you.

If leading without a plan brought you through the worst crisis in modern history, imagine how letting go of long-range planning could drive your innovation and service when we return to normal? Your future will be the story of an overwhelming challenge being transformed into a surprising opportunity you never planned.

Dr. Roger Parrott is leading Belhaven University, a doctoral level institution, and one of only 36 schools in the world working at the highest level of collegiate Arts programs.