Monday, July 9, 2007

Oh, the Places You Go Just Winging It

Serendipity. Street smarts. Dumb luck. Common sense. It is possible to make your way fairly well in the world without much of a plan.

Last Monday, I took my daughter on a one-day tour of New York City. Given the time constraints, my goal was to take her to see some of Manhattan’s most famous landmarks (like St. Patrick's Cathedral, above). Prior to the trip, I checked out a 1996 edition of “Kidding Around New York City: A Young Person’s Guide to the City” from our local library and used that to inform my itinerary.

I narrowed our focus to Midtown (where our hotel was located) and the lower end of the island because I knew I wanted to start with the Statue of Liberty. The book helped me identify Wall Street, the NYSE, and City Hall as nearby points of interest. I added the site of the World Trade Center towers to the list. Chinatown looked like it was close by and the book mentioned a chicken named Bird Brain that plays Tic Tac Toe at the Chinatown Fair on Mott Street. Knowing my daughter loves bagels, I found “Best Bagels in New York City” on and came up with a destination near our hotel. With a family member’s recommendation for a dinner spot (Mars 2112), I figured we’d wrap up the day back in Midtown, where we’d take a train from Grand Central Station to our final destination in Connecticut.

That was the sum total of the day’s plan. I had no map of the island, no subways guides, and no other way to navigate the day. I was taking on Manhattan more or less “winging it.”

And for the most part, it worked. Without a map, it took us a little longer to find our breakfast spot than I had anticipated. We walked quite a ways to find a subway station afterwards, but when we did, the guy selling subway tickets told us how to make our way to Battery Park to get to the Statue of Liberty.

At Castle Clinton, the lines to get tickets and the ferry to Liberty Island were two hours long. Fortunately, I had anticipated that, and the agreed upon back-up plan was to take the Staten Island Ferry to get views of Lady Liberty.

From there, I knew we had to walk north to get to Wall Street. I just followed signs to the financial district and asked for directions when I thought we might have veered off course. With nothing more than a Google map printout of the NYSE, we made our way to the Federal Reserve Bank, the NYSE, City Hall, the Woolworth Building, and the site of the former World Trade Center towers. We picked up a subway at City Hall to take us to Canal Street and Chinatown. That was a bit of a waste of money since we were only a few blocks away.

At the top of the subway station on Canal Street was a tourist’s map of Chinatown that provided our orientation for exploring that neighborhood. We enjoyed strolling up and down Mott Street and some of its side streets, popping into Chinese bakeries and gift shops and apothecaries. At the Chinatown Fair, however, we discovered that Bird Brain, the Tic Tac Toe savant, was long-gone.

After walking through Chinatown and into Little Italy, we hopped on the same #6 train back to Midtown to 42nd and Broadway to find our dinner spot. I had only the address of the restaurant, and we found it without a problem. Being so near Times Square, we walked around Broadway after dinner and picked up some cheesecake before we headed to Grand Central.

As we rode Metro North, the commuter train that runs between NYC and the Connecticut shoreline that night, I thought about how much fun we had flying by the seat of our pants. By all accounts, the day was a success. I found all the places I wanted to find, navigated well enough, and never had to rely on a taxi to get us from one place to the next.

But we certainly walked way more than we needed to. If we had had a map, I would have found more direct ways of getting us from point A to point B and would have made smarter use of the subways. With any kind of Manhattan guide, our feet would have been a lot less sore.

Researching our destinations ahead of time would have made a big difference, too. As it turns out, the financial district has been barricaded and under close guard since 9-11. Tourists are no longer allowed into the NYSE, City Hall, or the Federal Reserve Bank. I knew the Statue of Liberty would likely be restricted, but it hadn’t occurred to me that everything else would be, too. While my daughter wasn’t disappointed to miss out on the viewing room of the New York Stock Exchange, I was. And if I had taken more time to plan the trip, I would have known that since the 1996 edition of our guide book was published, Bird Brain had long since gone to the fryer.

What occurred to me as we elevated our throbbing feet on the empty seats across from us on the train that night is that small business management is often a lot like touring without a map. You can do a pretty good job without a very detailed plan. By basically heading in the right direction, asking around, and making educated guesses, you can achieve some respectable success.

Most of the small business owners I know and have worked with do not use a business plan and scoff at the very idea. “Our sales are growing,” they may point out with pride. “I don’t need a plan to tell me how to run my business. I’ve done well so far without one.”

And I won’t argue that; it’s true. If you took the time to create a plan for your business, however, your research would likely uncover better tools and new technology. You might find innovations or resources that could improve your day-to-day operations and update your product line. You might discover faster, more efficient ways to run your business and software that would give you more information about your customers, your weaknesses and your profitability.

Sure, things are functioning now. But I bet at the end of the day, with a useful business plan, your feet would be a lot less sore, too.

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