Building Business Plans That Actually Work

Building Business Plans That Actually Work

It seems every large corporation I’ve worked at — Hallmark Cards, General Electric, Sprint — has at least one person whose only job is business planning. Many corporate types will tell you there is no document more important than the annual business plan. As you’ve probably heard, “if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Ominous, but true.

Business planning is a popular reason to bring in a consultant for an assignment. For many years, I was that guy. I stepped in, provided an unbiased point-of-view, helped write a business plan and then 12 months later, we’d dust it off and freshen it up. It didn’t take too many cycles to see where the real problem was: activation. Sure, some plans would have a few pages dedicated to the concept of activation. However, once business plans have been presented, someone breathes a huge sigh of relief and most of the time, the plan would go into hibernation.

What separates a good business plan from a bad one is the plan of action — the steps the enterprise will take to achieve goals identified in its business plan. In my view, a good business plan is a living, breathing document that lays out where your organization wants to go, who is responsible for that portion of the trip, and how the organization is doing as it works to reach those goals.

Smart business plans have similar DNA:

A good business plan is a road map…

Road maps begin with a goal/destination in mind and an accurate description of the starting point. So do good business plans. The “goal” part is easy. Businesses set goals all the time.  Determining the starting point is hard because assessments like that require humility and egos are often damaged. Start your business planning process with a thorough and honest assessment of where you stand. Set lofty goals with achievable mileposts in between to ensure you stay on track; this will also give your team something to celebrate as short-term goals are met and tied into long-term goals.

… And a report card with progress reports along the way.

Be sure the report card includes:

  1. Specific measurable results attached to tasks (actual numbers, percentages);
  2. Identification of each of the task owners (a name, not a department); and
  3. Precision around the timing of everything (e.g., “by when”).

Revisit the plan often, make course corrections and ensure assignees truly owns their deliverables and the specifics around the tasks. Remember how report cards work? They don’t just show up in the mail one very stressful day. We get progress reports before the result is determined so we can take corrective action. Do the same with your business plan and for your staff.

Everyone and I mean EVERYONE — has a role.

Back at GE, I used to tell my staff “everyone has an oar in the water,” and I made sure each manager was communicating to every employee what their contributions to the overall performance of the enterprise was. The key is that there must be a straight line between a goal in an annual plan and what every single staff member is doing daily.

Here’s an example of how that works: I was on a business plan consulting project with a large hospital network and we were working on an “oars in the water” exercise I had developed. I asked a facilities manager what he should expect someone holding a mop to say their contribution to achieving a goal on the business plan was. His answer was brilliant. “Committing to clean floors reduces the likelihood of spreading germs, and that helps reduce the incidence of contamination by 47 percent.” Connecting a goal from the business plan to the everyday to-do list provides meaning and importance to every individual and is vital to the success of the business. I mean every word of that. A year from now, your entire organization — from the people who manage events to the people who clean the kennels — should be able to tell you what their oars are and what you are collectively paddling toward.

Business planning has always fit neatly into a calendar cycle with a start and a stop date. Effective business planning has an activation phase that also runs on a cycle — one that lasts 365 consecutive days.


Tom Tholen

Tom Tholen is SAWA's Senior Vice President of Marketing & Development. The SAWA member has served as President of Companion Channel, a cloud-based digital screen media service that streamed into partner shelters. Tom is perhaps best known in the animal welfare industry as the former President & Chief Marketing Officer for Callahan Creek, which was the agency of record for Hill’s in the early days of their shelter program. Over the years, he has worked for several agencies, as well as major corporations including Hallmark, Sprint and General Electric. A Colorado native, Tom received his BS in Journalism from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and he lives with his family in the Kansas City area.


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