If you ever find yourself in the lobby of a corporate office and want to create a stir, yell one of the following phrases:
“Time for Business Planning!”
“Restructuring” means you might want to polish up the ol’ resume. “Free cake” means, well, count your fingers first. In most companies I’ve been affiliated with, “business planning” is a beast unto itself. Business planning is a year-long, never-ending exercise with no real starts or stops. Organizations typically assign one lucky soul/department to hop on that treadmill. Having been on that treadmill before, I learned a few things along the way that will make business planning a little less painful and a lot more effective.
A map for your organization
Think of business plans like you would a map. Maps work best when you know where you want to go, when you want to go, how you’ll get there and who will be going. Most importantly, maps work best when you put your foot on the accelerator and actually use them. Here are three easy-to-remember steps to get you on your way.
Effective business plans prepare an organization to move from one place to another, but many companies get stuck even before they get started. That’s often because they aren’t honest about where they are. Many leaders fail when they fail to acknowledge that the organization isn’t where it needs to be. Identify your current state (where you are) and your desired state (where you want to be) before doing anything. Solicit input from your community and your board. Their point-of-view can offer keen insights into where you truly are and where you truly need to be. Humble, effective leaders know the view from the inside doesn’t always offer the complete and accurate picture.
The next critical step is to set your team, the necessary timing and how you’re going to measure. Note the word “critical.” The team, the timing and how things get measured will make or break even the best business plan. That’s because without proper perspective (the team), identification of the tollgates along the way (the timing) and how to tell if you’ve hit your targets (the measurements), the business plan has no structure.
- The team. Effective business plans, in my experience, are not the output of one person or one department or even one organization. Good business planning involves input and sign-off from all departments, because a good business plan should impact all departments. Sign-off along the way does something else: it makes getting approval a whole lot easier. That’s because “business plans” are an output and “business planning” is a process. When the ultimate approvers have input at the early stages of the process, the likelihood of getting a green light when the process yields a plan is greatly enhanced. Involving stakeholders makes the process easier. Stakeholders are functional experts, and involving experts removes erroneous assumptions. Just make sure you have identified a leader of the process, someone good at taking input and making a decision — without fail, someone will have to make decisions along the way. And as for that first point regarding people outside of your organization? Chances are, someone, somewhere has faced a similar challenge and would be willing to throw their two cents in. Log in to your SAWA Facebook groups and ask for input. You’ll have great information pouring in within minutes.
- The timing. I’ve seen this happen again and again. There’s a date on the calendar that says, “business plan due” and nothing else. No steps along the way, no intermediate tollgates to support the whole “collaboration” goal. This is a huge mistake. Another huge mistake is allowing dates to be moved or missed. The whole “It’s okay, the plan is not due until XX” is a predictor of a failed plan. An easy way to stay on track is to build a spreadsheet with columns entitled “what” (the activity or deliverable), “by when” (the date including the time of day it’s due) and “from who” (the owner of the item). Eliminate the mystery and circulate the schedule. Print the schedule and post it outside your office and even in a breakroom. Keep it visible so nothing can sneak up on anyone and get missed or prolonged. Take a red pen and mark through completed tasks. There’s no such thing as “over communication” when it comes to business planning.Another important aspect in the timing category involves the vision of your plan and where it is taking you. A finished business plan should have a very clear direction and route for the next twelve months. But like any journey, this year’s business plan needs to connect with a short- and long-range plan. If the goal is to increase live release by X%, is it doable in a year, or does it need to be broken up into smaller, more achievable goals? Take a lesson from the weight loss folks: the goal might be to lose, say, forty pounds, but they break that up into smaller, more achievable steps. They celebrate each step along the way to build enthusiasm and momentum. Smart stuff.
- The measurements. We’ve already hit on a lot of the important parts of measurements, but it’s key to make sure everyone in the organization has a stake and something they are personally trying to achieve. In a previous blog, I wrote about an “Oars in the Water” exercise I developed. Essentially, that means everyone in the organization is connected to the organization’s larger goals. In that live release example I used in the previous section, the folks mopping the floors should understand how everything they do contributes to animals leaving the building. Everyone should know how everything they do is helping the organization reach an important goal. The old saying, “what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done” is true. Just make sure everyone — and I mean everyone — knows they have a stake and can assist in making the organization successful.
One of my darkest days in business was watching a good plan get tossed after only one week of activation. I was part of a team that had spent the better part of six months constructing a plan for a business that was in a real tailspin. While I believe a villain in the scenario had to do with a lack of courage, the real problem was our approach. We hadn’t involved the right people and received their buy-in early. The management team reluctantly accepted our recommendation and then bailed seven days later.Pushing the button and activating a plan can’t be something a management team is doing under duress or without having a lot of positive momentum before the ultimate “go day.” I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a committee one month into activation of another bold plan. When it started sounding like the group was going to hit the “kill switch,” I told the management team, “Sometimes the best plan is to stick with the plan.” They did, and we started seeing positive results once our plan had time to go to work. The lesson here is that most plans aren’t going to start working right away. Look for leading indicators, but remember, if the team has followed a good process and involved experts both inside and outside of the building, patience is your friend.
You’re going to think I’m slightly insane with this final point: I really enjoy business planning, and I’m convinced you will, too. Creating the map for an organization is a great responsibility, and if you follow the steps outlined above, you’ll learn a lot, make a bunch of friends and set the course for the foreseeable future. Business planning can, and should, be a good thing — even better than free cake.