The Right Planning Framework Can Help
Gone are the days of the traditional “business plan” (thankfully!). Startups and newly formed small businesses move fast, are flexible, and make decisions on a shorter timeline than businesses did years ago. By the time you finish formatting a business plan, your business could have pivoted two or three times to capitalize on an opportunity or avoid a disaster if you were focused on those realities instead of burying your head in a document.
But, that doesn’t mean that startups should operate without a serious plan. You can’t be flexible, make quick decisions and accurately analyze opportunities if you don’t have a clear set of goals to use as a guide. So, even though you don’t need a traditional, 50+ page business plan, you do need an effective planning strategy.
Modern-Day Business Planning
These days, successful startups create plans that take up no more than a few pages and can be explained in no more than a few minutes. Founders and their most trusted team members start with a predominate vision and develop goals and strategies aimed at seeing that vision come to light.
Whether they develop their own methodology or use one more methodology created and published by experienced consultants and agencies, successful startups take the time to create a plan that keeps them on track but allows them the freedom to pivot when they need to. From a guiding vision to regular checkpoints, and an expectation of accountability, these plans are the new business roadmap.
Key Elements in an Effective Planning Strategy
1. Vision and Values
Where businesses of the past started with “what” they were going to produce, market, and sell to “whom”, modern-day businesses start with “why”. Their visions tell a story of a better world for a specific group of people.
These visions are backed by core values that define what is important to the founders, the types of employees they want on their team, and the way that their organization will interact internally and with the outside world.
2. A BHAG
Successful startups begin with a “BHAG”… a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. This concept was conceptualized in the book, “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies” by James Collins and Jerry Porras. It’s the predominate goal that a company sets to support its vision.
For example, Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s BHAG is “A world without breast cancer”. That’s a simple statement that packs a lot of power. It encompasses the vision of the company and sets the stage for all other goals the company will set.
Setting your BHAG is an important step. It sets a clear destination that all other goals, plans, strategies, and ideas should follow and be measured against. Any time you’re faced with a decision, an opportunity to pivot, an idea from a team member, you can stop and ask yourself and your team, “does this move us closer to our BHAG?”.
3. A Limited Number of Goals for a Specific Time Frame
While many plans still include a 3-5 year estimate on sales, market share, and/or valuation, most goals are set in 60-120 day intervals. Personally, I prefer to use quarterly (90 day) cycles. That allows you to significantly move the needle four times a year and accounts for typical swings in business based on the quarter. For example, retail businesses are completely different in Q4 during the holidays than they are in Q1.
The shorter time period allows you to focus everyone’s attention on a limited number of goals and resulting projects. I’d recommend no more than 4 in a quarter. If you’re launching a new agency, the 4 goals for your first quarter might be something like:
- File incorporation documents
- Set up bank accounts
- Launch website
- Sign on the first client
Whether it’s just you, you and partner, or a whole team – if it’s not on this list (and not part of regular business operations), it doesn’t get touched.
Following the same rules, you’ll accomplish big goals quarter after quarter, exiting the year in a completely different situation than you entered it.
4. Regular Checkpoints
Keeping everyone on the same page through your planned interval requires regular checkpoints. Depending on the size and distribution of your team (are you all in an office together, or spread throughout the world?), you’ll need to develop a schedule of meetings or check-ins that allow everyone to get caught up.
Consider planning to hold:
- Short daily meetings or online/email check-ins when everyone answers: What did you do yesterday? What are you planning to do today? Where are you getting stuck and how can the team help? These are often called “Stand-ups” since they are designed to be quick, and to the point, nobody needs to sit down and slump into an unproductive meeting.
- Twice-weekly project meetings: Project participants spend 30 – 60 minutes twice a week to discuss the project and make decisions on next steps.
- Weekly updates: Everyone meets weekly to provide updates on the planned goals, alert the team about issues, and receive direction from executives about decisions, ideas, issues, and opportunities.
5. Situational Analysis
Along with checking in on the progress your team is making towards each goal, founders and their management team, or trusted inner circle of team members, should plan to meet regularly to discuss the company’s situation and trends that may affect that situation.
In a traditional business plan, this was called “SWOT Analysis”, in which companies outlined an exhaustive list of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Now, this is a fluid conversation. Plan to discuss this along with weekly updates, or create a specific time to have the conversation with your team.
6. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
Most of the goals you set for each planned interval will be broken up into a variety of projects or tasks. Each of these needs to be assigned to someone. That person must understand that they are accountable for seeing the project or task through to completion and for sounding an alarm as soon as possible when they run into roadblocks preventing them from completing the work.
They also need to understand if there is an expectation for an amount of time in which it will be done, a budget to follow, a stat to attain, a level to reach etc. This is where KPIs are helpful.
Unlike forecasts and quotas in a traditional business plan, a KPI is set as an indicator. Achieve the KPI level and things are going as planned; come in lower (or worse) and there’s an issue you probably need to address; come in higher (or better) and there’s an opportunity you may not have accounted for.
KPIs help everyone on the team understand expectations and embrace their accountability for goals, projects, and tasks. They know what to work towards, and when to alert you to problems or opportunities.
7. Process Documentation & Regular Review
Last but not least, your planning strategy should include a system for documenting processes and reviewing them on a regular basis. While this may sound like a tedious task that doesn’t belong in a fast-paced business… hear me out. Documenting processes and reviewing them regularly has huge benefits:
- As you scale you’ll need to delegate tasks, projects, and accountability to more team members. If processes are documented, and not just in your head, or in your managers’ heads, they are easier to transfer to new staff.
- Reviewing processes helps founders and managers stay in the loop on how work is getting done.
- Reviewing and comparing processes allows you and your team to spot redundancies, and identify areas where processes should be combined, or split in different ways to achieve a more productive workflow.
- Reviewing processes allows you, your tech team, or consultants look for opportunities to automate manual processes. This often leads to cost-savings and frees up one of your team members’ time for more creative thinking.
If you skip this part of your planning strategy, you risk creating and fostering systems that are duplicated, redundant, outdated, and unnecessary because everyone continues doing what they’ve always done… because that’s the way they’ve always been done. That’s no way to grow a profitable, long-term business.
Planning strategies are fairly customized now. There’s not a one-size-fits-all document like the old business plan. You really are free to create a strategy that works for your organization. But, if you’d like some framework to guide you through the process, here are some popular methodologies I’ve reviewed, implemented, and have had success with:
Gazelles (Scaling Up)
This well-documented program walks you through the creation of a “One Page Strategic Plan”. It covers everything from setting goals to reviewing progress and making decisions on what to do next. It serves as a blueprint for building an effective strategy. While I always modify it to fit a particular business, this is the structure I use when developing strategies for my companies, and for my clients.
More at: https://gazelles.com/
Entrepreneurial Operating System (Traction)
There are several similarities between EOS and the Gazelles’ Scaling Up program. Traction spends more time on meeting rhythms, feedback loops, process documentation, and organizing documents and workflow. I tend to use EOS in conjunction with Scaling Up to flesh out the operational strategy that supports the larger BHAG and creative goals.
More at: https://www.eosworldwide.com/
The Lean Startup
For those of you that are less interested in a structured program for developing a strategic plan, and simply want to learn more about how companies are creating flexible, scalable businesses, I suggest researching and following The Lean Startup movement. Here, Eric Ries uses stories and examples to describe how executive teams can apply lean manufacturing principles to business management.
More at: http://theleanstartup.com/