Asset Planning vs Activity Planning

March 28, 2008
Dick Morley Becomes Resigned to Air travel, Messes Up a PowerPoint Presentation and Remembers a Valuable Lesson

By Dick Morley

Most of my editors seem to like travelogs with a message, and this column is such a travelog. SCADAware Inc, a company in Blomington, Ill., needed a keynote speaker for a product user’s group. Cluster groups are an effective sales tool. Calling on individuals one by one is expensive. If you can throw a party, the cost per selling opportunity is low—and SCADAware can afford good food. They served New England chowder and local chili along with my homemade chocolate. This typical meeting lasted half a day with several product infomercials and me—the entertainment. The product is StatusWatch, a monitoring system for discrete manufacturing.

Off I went, through the usual delayed flights and lost luggage trauma, resolving never to take that airline again. The aluminum storm door and airplane company became number one on my “never again” list until I realized that all the airlines are the same, caught in the 3-D traffic jam of air travel. I arrived the evening before the soirée with all my stuff intact. 

The next morning was setup time. The room was bright with morning light, but no drapes or modulated ceiling illumination, and the projector was not strong enough to overcome the sunlight. Presentations were made by very smart engineers who could not communicate with PowerPoint. (All PowerPoint users should remember the rule of 10, 20, 30—ten minutes, twenty slides and thirty-point type. There are some good short books on how one should communicate with PowerPoint.)

The strategy was to bring users to the table of change. A new StatusWatch system was being introduced along with a live demo. The demo performed as most do when first shown. A large flat-screen TV was set up to act as the GUI for the simulated system. Being a wise guy, I felt as if we were suddenly in PowerPoint hell. All the mistakes were made: talking to the screen, unreadable fonts, mumbling—and that was just me. The plan was to acquaint the users with the new direction, and I felt as if we had failed. Oh well.

Two days later, el presidente called. I was sitting down, prepared to hear the bad news. “Good news,” says he. “We are getting lots of business as a result of the user group conference.” I could see his broad smile over the phone.

It turns out that the attendees LOVED the TV GUI. The users felt that the display used to communicate the status of the process was key; not the StatusWatch system, but the presentation of the data captured, and they wanted that GUI. What we sold and what users saw was different. As my daddy once said, “’Tis better to be lucky than smart.” We sold the presentation tool that was used for the product demo, and the president also sold the new product.

So your columnist was dead wrong. Forget what I thought; the presentation worked—both for the product and the GUI. The engineers were recognized as smart, the utilization of the product was understood by the audience—also smart—and we sold another “new product” for monitoring. We all had smiles for several days and did not need to know the reason why.

Some bumper stickers leap to mind. Several well-known generals pointed out that it is necessary to plan an attack, but the plan itself is worthless. Asset planning is required, not activity planning. I was thinking about the details of execution and not the strategic goal. The company has the assets of IQ, superb service and understanding the customer’s needs. In my venture capital investments, no startup ended up as described in the original business plan, and almost all the startup plans were poorly written. Many succeeded despite the plan.

The lesson: don’t farm; hunt. And don’t believe the plan. Use asset planning, not activity planning. Ah me, hoisted by my own petard.

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