How should business planning be like being a musician?

April 17, 2018



In more ways than you might expect, it seems.  


How so?


Let me set the scene...


First up, I should confess I'm not a musician. Always wanted to be, but my aspirations were tempered by insufficient talent. Doesn’t stop me from banging out the odd tune on my guitar, but strictly in private…. 


But my son? 


He’s a different story. Mark can legitimately call himself a muso. He plays in a band that I have to say (objectively) is quite successful.


They play quite a bit up and down the Australian east coast, have done shows in Canada and the USA and a trip to the UK later this year is on the cards. And to top it off, the recent feather in the band’s cap was an invitation to attend the South by South West Conference in Texas. 


So apparently, they know what they’re on about.  


A answer to a question that led to a revelation...


Not so long ago, he and I were shooting the breeze about a bunch of stuff and I asked him something I’d wondered for a long time. I asked him how the band actually goes about writing its songs. Not an unreasonable question I thought because, well, they’ve written a few and I guessed there would be some sort of process involved. 


“Well,” he said, “we kinda sit around tossing up ideas and jamming and one thing leads to another. Jaz might come up with some lyrics, then we build on that. Or it could be Isaac has this great keyboard thing going on…and that could get things rolling. Really, it’s just us playing around with ideas that might get us where we want to go.” 


The light dawned. Businesses and bands? They’re not so different.  


Here’s why... 


I’d learned from previous conversations that the guys have clear musical parameters outside of which they virtually refuse to roam. In their words, it’s all about “doing music differently”.


Naturally in this context, they wouldn’t use the term purpose but I certainly would. Those three words - doing music differently - are the guiding principles for everything they do creatively and all other aspects of running the band. 


They also know where they want to be, and have achieved, five years down the track - in other words, they have a vision. And they’re very clear on it. 


Off the back of their purpose and vision, they’ve created a list of the milestones they need to achieve each step of the way.


So in business terms, they have a strategy


Now if I’d sat them down with the guys and asked them to articulate their purpose, vision and strategy they’d have written me off for the “suit” they probably suspect I’ve been for much of my career. And fair enough. I'll say again, it’s not language they’d use of course…but as it turns out, it’s exactly what they’ve done using their own methods and “unique” terminology. 


Which brings me to the song writing…oh, and business planning. 


First of all in one sense, you could argue the band’s songs are its products.


But they’re not. The product is the band itself.


The songs form part of its offer to its market. The other key elements of its “customer service proposition” (oh I can’t wait to show this to Mark and his mates…they’ll think I’ve entirely lost the plot) are the live shows and merchandise. And let's not forget the band members themselves, each with his own personal brand. 


Each element of this offer needs to be planned meticulously in the context of the purpose, vision and strategy. One great example comes from the live shows.  


Remember, the purpose is “doing music differently”.


Reflecting that, the band doesn’t use a traditional drum kit. Instead, one of the guitarists works a bass drum operating the pedal with his heel, the vocalist plays a couple of other drums and a cymbal or two, with the rest of the percussion spread across the other band members who also regularly swap instruments. 


So…umm…the song writing? 


Going back to the band’s song writing “process”….tossing up ideas and one thing leads to another. Nobody has a veto, no ideas are off the table, it’s an honestly collaborative thing with all members involved.


Which doesn’t, it seems, mean chaos. 


Here’s why. 


The purpose, vision and strategy are all in place. Every song is written with those things in mind (again, they’re not using those terms but it’s what they’re doing). 


And by the time they’re finished, the song is true to label - “music done differently.” 


Ok…and the business planning thing? 


I’ve just described a bunch of 20-something guys who’ve figured out exactly where they’re heading professionally and what they have to do to get there. 


What happens in that studio when they’re writing is exactly what should be happening in business planning sessions. 




Think about some of the business planning meetings you’ve been to in the past. Honestly….does anything on this list sound at all familiar? 


  • While there might be a facilitator, there’s almost always that someone who totally dominate proceedings. It could be the boss, but not necessarily. It’s most probably the person who thinks their ideas are the greatest ever and won’t let go until everyone agrees.


  • Some of the best ideas in the room never surface. For a host of reasons. But mostly because of that dominant individual. Have you ever simply gone along with an idea you don’t agree with just because it’s the easy path? I bet you have….


  • The group in the room isn’t representative. It’s mostly the senior folks with the rest of the team holding the fort and answering the phones. Again, that’s a recipe for missing the best ideas.


  • You leave thinking it was just like the time before. Lots of things to do and no real commitment or desire to do them.


  • Back at the office you wait for the email containing the outcomes, action plans and accountabilities. Only bits of it (at best) look vaguely like the discussions you remember. Someone’s either hijacked the email or recorded what they thought they heard.


Which all makes for something of a waste of time, don’t you think?


Purpose + vision + strategy -> business plan? 


Even worse, think about the "business plans" you’ve seen fall out the back end of these sessions - the prioritised objectives, projects and accountabilities. How closely do they reflect your business purpose, the vision and the strategy? 


Probably not very if we're being honest with one another. 


I bet at the start of your session you even reviewed and agreed (or slightly refined) those three things. Yet still, the outcomes bear little relationship to them. You may as well have saved an hour or so at the start of the day and just launched straight into setting objectives and allocating responsibilities.




Oh dear. 


Those things don’t seem to happen with my son’s band.


They’re never disappointed with the final outcomes from their song writing sessions. That’s because they’re never happy to call a song finished until they feel it matches up with their version of purpose, vision and strategy. They'll review and rewrite until they’re satisfied. And some songs never actually make it out of the studio because they’re not relevant to their longer term aspirations.


Here's a challenge... 


Before you leave this page, your challenge is to re-read the post and reflect on your own business and the planning process you have in place and compare it to how Mark’s band goes about it: 


  • Is it truly collaborative?


  • Does everyone in the room have equal input?


  • Are all possible ideas on the table?


  • Are all those ideas given appropriate air time and attention?


  • Are proposed actions objectively reviewed and prioritised?


  • Do the outputs truly reflect what was discussed and agreed on the day?


And, most importantly, if you carry out the plan and achieve the outcomes agreed, will the business have made progress toward its purpose, its vision and its strategy?


If not, maybe it’s back to the drawing board…I can get my son to call you if you like….


Better still...


We'd love to help you bring your business purpose to life, aligning it with your vision and strategy and ultimately, business plans. That alignment can help your business produce the kind of outperformance that purpose-driven businesses around the world have been shown to produce.


We reckon you might agree that's worth a discussion so please give us a call or drop us an email with your preferred contact details. 


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