So, how was it for you? The last set of board meetings I have attended have all been about the likely outcome for 2009 – and the prospects for next year. Mostly, there is a sense of relief that an annus horribilis is almost over, and a modest hope that the future will be brighter. Inevitably, the projections for 2010 have been in essence financial budgets: a set of estimates about how sales, profits and so forth will unfold in the next 12 months. Very dry stuff – and hardly inspirational.
Having been through this ritual
ad nauseam over the years, I am coming round to the belief that an annual plan based almost exclusively on numbers is insufficient. So, turn the whole process upside down: start any document with the qualitative points, while the numerical forecasts are secondary.
In a way, the annual budget might turn into something of a new year's resolution – a list of firm intentions, rather than just lifeless figures. Instead, there must be some dreams – not sheer fantasy but at least a degree of optimism. Otherwise, why even bother? How else can a business exceed expectations, beyond Samuel Johnson's “limits of sober probability”?
There will, of course, be a perpetual dynamic tension in any boardroom between a cautious, wholly conservative outcome and a vision of wild success. Where to draw the line between the two opposing views each time is the art of management, and also a test of judgment. Obsess too much about the downside, and no one on the team will feel driven to reach for the stars; but imagine only easy perfection, and you can be sure it will become an era of savage disappointment.
Yet, however it is executed, we do need a sense of direction to carry us through the labyrinth of life. As Victor Hugo said: “Where no plan is laid, where the disposal of time is surrendered merely to the chance of incident, chaos will soon reign.” Such a feel for sequence and strategy might not take the form of a written record; but I find that a plan in black and white exerts a powerful disciplining force.
Every December, I draw up a list of personal objectives – mainly surrounding my work. I never discuss the individual items with anyone, or whether I have succeeded. Why so secret? Perhaps because they are an eccentric mix of the impossibly ambitious and the trivial. They are less about reforming my bad habits, and more about particular projects that I want to undertake.
Curiously, I rarely look back at past lists – they seem so irrelevant to my current aspirations that I simply can't get excited about them. I always boost my list with a few near certainties that I am highly confident will receive a tick. Anyway, as Oliver Goldsmith warned in “The Vicar of Wakefield”, his novel: “The hours we pass with happy prospects in view are more pleasing than those crowded with fruition.” As everyone knows, the older you get, the more you appreciate the sensation of anticipation – too often the arrival at a longed-for destination can seem like an anti-climax.
So, what of the future? Predictions are a dangerous game, so I shall tread carefully. I suspect there will be minimal respite next year from the economic challenges, but at least most entrepreneurs are better prepared for the fight. Costs have been cut, working capital reduced, sacrifices made and excess shed.
Some competition has been eliminated, and other rivals will disappear in due course. The corporate landscape is being rearranged, while the well-managed and liquid players seize advantage. As ever, winning will be less about government action, and more about individual will, application and luck.
Some years, I wonder whether my guilt at not getting ahead and meeting more of my self-imposed targets is altogether a healthy response. Last week, I e-mailed a tremendously successful old acquaintance about a business idea. He responded saying he was on his yacht sailing to the Caribbean. I sat at my office desk, contemplating the London rain outside, and hated the monkey on my back.
Then I returned to business, and my list for next year.
奇怪的是，我很少会回顾过去的清单——它们看上去与我当前的志向毫不相关，因此根本无法令我感到兴奋。我总是会在清单中加上少量我非常确信能在近期实现的内容。不管怎样，正如奥立佛•高德史密斯(Oliver Goldsmith)在其小说《威克菲尔德牧师传》(The Vicar of Wakefield)中写到的：“我们抱着美好期望度过的时光，比硕果累累的时光更令人愉快。”每个人都知道，一个人年纪越大，就越重视期盼的感觉——太多时候，当期盼许久的目标实现时，人们可能反而会感到失落。