I sat in on my second weekly Tweetchat sponsored by the folks at @ssbbuzz. (I suggest you join the conversation on Tuesdays from 5 – 7 pm PT.) One of the first questions posed was about strategic business planning and tracking technology for small business. I know there are great tools out there for documenting strategic plans which will drill down to tactical plans and budgets. But to me, it is the process of planning that brings more value to the business owner rather than the physical output, be it electronic or paper. As the old saying goes, a strategic plan is only up to date until the ink dries. To clarify, when I discuss planning, I refer to the entire process from strategic visioning through the development of tactical plans and budgets. I don’t want to minimize the value of a well-documented business plan for securing financial backing. But, as a tool for managing the operational detail of a business, I find simple processes work best for most small businesses.
I offer the following abbreviated process for my own planning and tracking which you may find valuable. It should go without saying that the process is lengthened and complexity increases with the addition of contributing stakeholders which is why this process may actually require full-time staffing in larger organizations.
1. Vision retreat (1-2 days). Every year, I review my 3 year strategic plan and 1 year operating plan from the prior year. Years ago, I attended a strategic visioning session where the facilitator began by asking us all to visualize the cover of a business magazine (For your purposes, it could be any periodical that applies to your situation from Working Mother to Fat Company – remember this is your vision!). What would the headline be at the end of the planning timeframe? Are you the Fast Company CEO of the Year? Working Mother Mom of the Year? Take the next step and look inside the magazine. What would the sub-headings of the article be? What are the major achievements that led to this recognition? Sales growth? New markets defined? New products rolled out? Customer achievement measures? Write it out. Define it. It is your vision.
After I complete the visioning process, I perform a SWOT analysis to measure the actual state of the business against the vision. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. I review the business as a whole and make sure I touch on every product and functional business area from the perspective of both operations and the customer experience. Any gaps between the vision and the SWOT become strategic focus areas. From there, I update my plan with the new strategies, measurable goals, budgets and potential tactics. Studies prove that a written goal is more likely to be accomplished than a mental goal. Regular tracking and monitoring also increase your likelihood of achieving goals.
2. Monthly progress reviews (1 Hour per month). Where are we compared to where we said we would be? Acknowledge the accomplishments. Analyze where we fell short. Adjust the plans. Do not minimize the importance of patting yourself on the back for goals achieved. Building a small business is hard work and can be overwhelming. Acknowledging yourself can lead to fresh enthusiasm and strength. Re-set monthly plans based upon new factors and any critical threats. Be flexible and willing to adjust but be careful not to throw out the whole plan because conditions have changed. Be grateful for being able to adjust quickly. Remember the benefit of planning is the PROCESS. Review budgets against actual expenses and income. How are products performing against plan? Have we implemented the operational tactics and projects we planned to implement?
3. Weekly Review and Plan. I spend about 15 minutes per week reviewing monthly goals and setting objectives for the upcoming week. I used to spend a long time writing huge lists of to-do’s but I have learned that it only distracts my efforts rather than focusing them. A few years ago, I was introduced to a method called the Critical Six as defined by James Ray. Each week, I identify the top 6 activities I want to achieve by the end of the next week unless there is a significant change of plans. Previous week’s Critical Six items that were incomplete become the top priority items for the upcoming week. This is a good time to review measurable stats such as sales, website traffic, conversion rates, social media traffic, etc.
4. Daily Critical Six. (5 minutes). I begin my day reviewing the Critical Six from the previous day and for the week. Incomplete items automatically go on the list first. This act of discipline helps me avoid procrastinating. Note that my weekly six is not exactly restated on my daily six. The daily tasks may be a lower level task under a larger project defined in the weekly goals. For example, I may have a weekly goal to develop a product strategy for my new book. One of my daily items may be to create a press release for the new book.
Primarily at the annual retreat and the monthly review, I evaluate the ability of the business to provide resources to accomplish the plan – time and money. Lack of either can derail the plans very quickly. I do suggest entrepreneurs consider outsourcing/smallsourcing for any task which is outside their core competencies. Outsourcing options are many these days and terrific talent can be found at the click of a mouse (and the tweet of a twitter). Consider the tradeoff of outsourcing the task versus the lost business benefit of a task incomplete.
I love technology as much or more than anyone and know there are some great tools out there. But for me, the creative process and the fun of tracking and adjusting plans is the most enjoyable part of my job as an entrepreneur. I love reflecting on how far I have come. I see planning time as a gift I give to myself and I make sure I carve out time for planning just as I make time for meals and other basic disciplines in my life.
Never, ever, ever use planning as an excuse to criticize yourself. If something did not get done, use one of the 3 D’s: Do it, Delegate it or Drop it. Easy.