Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth
The management wisdom—and folly—of following the famous advice of Mike Tyson and an important corollary.
"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth..."
Mike Tyson is now 52-years-old! It is hard for those of us of a certain generation to realize that fact (and yes, it makes us feel much older ourselves!). Many younger people today may only recognize Mike Tyson as: "Oh, that guy with the face tattoo!" or "Yeah, he was the boxer who somehow showed up with a tiger in "The Hangover!" But now he is a twice published author ("Undisputed Truth" and "Iron Ambition: Lessons I've Learned from the Man Who Made Me a Champion"), and of course, with the way the world works in 2019, you can hire Mike Tyson to represent your brand or speak at your next corporate event!
However, what brought Mike Tyson all of this this notoriety—and yes, some infamy, was his career as a boxer. When he burst onto the boxing scene in the mid-1980s as a young phenom, he really was unlike anyone who had come before him in the sport. At just 20 years old, “Iron Mike” Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in history by knocking out Trevor Berbick.
And for a period of just under five years, Tyson ruled the heavyweight division with knockout after knokcout after knockout. And yes, for this time, Tyson was widely regarded as being indestructible—and the "baddest man on the planet!"
Mike Tyson was a perhaps the most intimidating sports figure ever. He won—many said—before he ever entered the ring. His opponents were intimidated—some would use the term "scared"—by what they knew was coming—that Tyson punch! Take Michael Spinks, who himself held the lineal heavyweight title before he lost in just 91 seconds to Tyson in 1988!
All that changed though on the night of February 11, 1990, when Tyson and the mythical, fearsome image that he had built—came crashing down. As a 42-1 long-shot, James "Buster" Douglasknocked Tyson down—and out—in the 10th round of their championship fight in Tokyo. Boxing history certainly changed that night, as did the course of Mike Tyson's life, leading to some very dark places, including prison, and then, a remarkable reentry into public life.
Now, Tyson's reign at the top of the boxing world made him a superstar. And in the days before viral videos, he was known for many times having said some very memorable and thoughtful things. His quips were born of his life of both much hard-won success...
and much failure, personally, legally, and financially.
Sometimes, Tyson crossed the line and said things that drew outrage and even had some questioning his frame of mind, as when he challenged another heavyweight fighter (Lennox Lewis), saying that he wanted to "eat his children!"
Now, for all the controversy Tyson generated both in an out of the ring— and yes, he did famously bite part of Evander Holyfield's ear off in a fight...
Tyson was also the source a piece of wisdom that has now been widely used in the worlds of business, politics, and yes, sports. It is this succinct observation:
The boxer's now most famous quote has been employed by business leaders, coaches, analysts and journalists, and yes, even by President Donald Trump. In fact very recently, Jonathan Swan, the lead national political reporter for Axios, wrote a piece entitled, "Trump's Strategic Planning Inspiration: Mike Tyson." Now whatever you may think about President Trump—good or bad, but certainly, few are indifferent—he does have an aversion to planning (the President even reportedly uses the Tyson quote to reinforce "his point about the pointlessness of planning").
Now, the genesis of this article was that when I read Swan's Axios piece, I realized that I have actually found myself having used this famous Tyson quote myself quite often in my work as a strategic management consultant, as a professor of strategy, and in my writing about business and government. However, unlike President Trump, I do not use the former heavyweight champion's piece of invaluable wisdom to denigrate the value of planning. To the contrary, I have whipped out the Tyson quote to emphasize the importance of planning—the right kind of planning.
Everybody does have a plan until they get punched in the mouth - the key is planning for what you are going to do AFTER that happens. And whatever the competitive environment, be it is business, in politics, in sports, and yes, in life, the key is how you react to that punch. In other words, do you have an effective plan to counterpunch? And I use the term counterpunch not so much in the literal sense, but in a figurative way. It is not planning for your plan to fail, but planning on how to respond to what your competition is doing, and yes, how they will inevitably counterpunch to your punch—in the form of you executing your plan.
All too often, top managers—people who should know far, far better through their own life lessons and their prior lessons in business—look upon their plan as an arrow. They see "powerpoint dreams" of what the future is to bring as the company moves in unison in that straight-line to great success ahead—with no interruptions, no problems, no sidetracks or detours along the way. They see charts and projections and spreadsheets and graphs—great, colorful graphs—and anticipate that is exactly what will happen. The vision is straight-forward—and it is beautiful on that printed page, on that tablet, that laptop, that whiteboard, that projection screen—the bigger the better, of course!
And yet, reality ALWAYS hits—both in life and in business. The reality is that there will always—always—be a reaction to what you are doing. Your strategy will not operate in a perfect vacuum. Your competitors will not stand idly by and just watch you work your plan, no matter how marvelous it may be. Your competition will react to what your company is trying to do. They will not stand passively by as you implement that new marketing strategy, that new expansion, that next great product design. They will react and counter your move. They may even punch you in the mouth—figuratively, of course. And unlike in the boxing ring, where competition is, by definition, clearly defined as a mano a mano contest (and a discrete, time limited event at that), the reality of business today is that you will have multiple, sometimes numerous competitors—and new competition can spring forth literally every day from all corners of the country and anywhere on the planet. The big question is then: have you planned appropriately?
Planning then is valuable—a very valuable and necessary exercise for any enterprise, any agency, any team. However, you have to plan for contingencies, not perfection. You have to plan for how your competition will react to you implementing and executing your plan—hours out, days out, months out, even years out. How a company of any size executes it strategy is not linear, it is a zig-zag route to ultimate success—a sepentine route forward and onward—and yes, hopefully upward.
And so yes, Mike Tyson was right: Everybody does have a plan until they get punched in the mouth. The real key to success is to have the right kind of plan to be able to move forward after they get hit. For those running any size business or organization, from the CEO of the largest organization to an entrepreneur heading his or her own startup to the mayor of a small town, you will always be wise to plan for bumps in the road—and more— along the way as you execute that beautiful, flawless plan. That's reality, and reality is more competitive and complicated each and every day.