Your Business Is A Mess: Why Your Plans Fail You & What To Do Instead

Tara McMullin
Feb 19, 2018 · 4 min read

Your business is a mess.

Or, to put it another way:

Your business is a series of interwoven systems, mechanisms, and information that impact and influence each other so that no one component can be singled out as a problem or a solution.

Russell Ackoff, a pioneer in both management science and systems thinking, said:

Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are extracted from messes by analysis. Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.

If you feel like you solve one problem only to discover another, this is why. If you feel like every time you make an incredible discovery about your business it changes everything, this is why. If you feel like everything you learn about growing your business seems to influence everything you’ve experienced running your business, this is why.

It’s a mess.

And that’s okay.

Your job is to manage this mess.

That means being willing to adapt, try new things, experiment, and — most importantly — accept that the work is never done.

Every change you make to your website has the potential to ripple through the rest of your business. Every adjustment you make to your pricing can set off a chain reaction. Every revision you make to your plan could create a counteraction later on down the line.

The more aware you are of the messy nature of your business, the more you can use the mess to your advantage.

You’re not planning for the mess.

When you plan for your business — whether it’s setting goals for the year or simply planning your actions for the week — you are most likely setting discrete goals or tasks. It’s a form of projection or forecasting that can feel downright silly when there’s a tiny voice in the back of your head that says either “Yeah, right,” or “Nice try but there’s no way you’re getting that all done.”

Ackoff has an answer for this too:

The future is better dealt with using assumptions than forecasts.

Assumptions — or as I’ve referred to them before, hypotheses — help you deal with the mess. In fact, they can help you use the mess to your advantage. You can expect the unexpected and anticipate a vast array of scenarios.

When you decide on an assumption or a hypothesis instead of a goal or task list, you’ll see it as flexible. The flexibility of your hypothesis means you’re more likely to adjust it instead of abandon it when you’re presented with challenges.

The more your adjust your hypothesis, the more you learn about your business, the mess, and how it works. The more you learn about your business, the better you’re able to manage the mess and anticipate how ripple effects or chain reactions will occur in the future.

Here’s how to get started:

Look at your goal or projects for this quarter.

Most likely, you’ve set those goals as definitive statements:

  • Enroll 30 new customers
  • Generate $25,000 in revenue
  • Complete a new online course to sell

Nothing wrong with those… but those goals don’t reflect the mess that is your business, right?

To reflect your mess, you want to identify the individual, overlapping, and inter-influencing systems that make up the way you achieve each goal.

For instance, you could say:

If I write 12 new blog posts with a Call to Action over the next 12 weeks, then I’ll generate 1000 new leads. If I market my program to those 1000 new leads, then I’ll enroll 30 new customers into my program.

Now, you can see the mess!

Writing blog posts with a Call to Action that generates appropriate leads is (at least) one system. Nurturing new leads and marketing your program to them is another system. Enrolling new customers is yet another system.

Each is interdependent on the others. If your blog writing & lead generating system doesn’t quite gel, you won’t generate the leads you need. If you don’t generate the leads you need, you won’t have enough people to market to to close 30 sales. If you don’t know what you’re selling and how you’re selling it, you won’t be able to write effective blog posts and generate relevant leads.

When things work out, you don’t worry about how these systems work together. You also don’t learn much about what works for your business.

When things don’t work out, you can be so focused on the disappointing outcome that you miss the obvious opportunities to improve on your plan and get a different result.

When you have a hypothesis instead of a forecast, you won’t simply bemoan the fact that you didn’t reach your goal. Instead, you have an immediate plan of action for how to improve your work and do better next time. You could adapt the type of posts you write, the frequency with which you write them, the Call to Action, etc…

Once you recognize your mess, you can start to see planning, goal-setting, and taking action as a process and not something that’s set in stone once created.

You can adjust your plans instead of abandoning them.


Join me for a free, public workshop on creating your next hypothesis, sticking to the plans you have, and navigating business setbacks.

Click here to save your seat!

What Works

What Works is honest conversation about running & growing a small business today. We seek out the thoughtful, intentional, and unconventional ways small business owners make it work.

Tara McMullin

Written by

Founder & Executive Producer of What Works and The What Works Network — a small business podcast & community. Formerly Tara Gentile.

What Works

What Works is honest conversation about running & growing a small business today. We seek out the thoughtful, intentional, and unconventional ways small business owners make it work.