Planning in the Real World

Where Can I Find the Map to Success?

Things are ok. They might even be great. But how do you know you are thinking BIG enough? Are you leveraging the full strengths, interests and talents on your team? Will you wind up in a place that will make you happy? Do you have a game plan?

It is not that you haven’t been thinking about these questions. The business environment is complex and the choices are daunting. How do you answer the hard questions?

For the same reasons that a pilot uses a map to fly from Atlanta to Seattle, and a restaurant chef follows a recipe, it makes a lot of sense to work towards important business and personal goals with a plan. Of course you can operate without a plan, but the results may not be what you truly desire.

Of course there is no universal map to success. However, a strategic thinking and planning process enables you to create a framework that will allow you to control business results, instead of the business controlling you. For many the process of planning (thinking, discussing, researching and analyzing) is even more useful than the final plan.

Sounds Good But

A planning process can help to sharpen a vision, define good alternative paths to getting there, build common understanding and commitment, transform frustration and uncertainty into action, focus resources, balance dreams with reality, and shorten the time to reach important goals.

While there is a lot of research correlating success with planning, it probably won’t surprise you that the majority of small businesses don’t have a written strategic plan. The reasons are varied but some of the common themes include: “It’s not the best use of my limited time”, “planning takes away flexibility”, “there are too many uncertainties”, “I did a plan when I started the business”, “organizational dynamics make planning impractical”, “not sure how…it costs too much to enlist support”. These are all real concerns, especially to the small business owner.

The interesting part is that the very reasons why people in business avoid planning are exactly the reasons why planning can significantly impact their future… for the better.


“We are so overwhelmed with what has to be done today – hiring making sure our customers are happy, getting new products designed – we just don’t have time to think about next week, forget about next year. Somehow, the future will just have to take care of itself.”

Thinking versus action provides a dilemma for many professionals. We are action oriented. When we are doing something, we feel productive. When we take the time to think, we feel guilty of being unproductive. We need to do both. Without investing the time and effort required to think about where we are headed, is it likely we won’t get there.

When we become so involved in the day to day that we risk losing perspective on the big picture, it is time to step back. If we stay mired in the trenches, the easiest solution is often implemented, not the best solution. The planning process takes time, but it leads to a much more productive use of the limited time we have available.


“We like to be flexible and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. A written plan will take away our spontaneity by locking us in”

Creating a strategic plan doesn’t mean that your business can’t be flexible. A plan enables you to create a baseline so that when things start changing, there is a foundation from which we can evaluate new opportunities. Out of strategic planning comes decisions like: “we will market to this target market and not that one”, “we will offer these kind of product or services and not those”, “we will accomplish this objective first before we will put another on our plate.” Written plans and goals demonstrate that careful consideration has been given to the future. It is important to make these kind of decisions before you arrive at the crossroads, because, when you are on top of it, it is much more difficult to see all of the options well enough to make educated decisions.

“We have a basic idea of where we are headed, why write it down” Keeping goals in your head are mere thoughts that will change as often as your opinions about them change. The act of writing out goals helps to clarify them and provides an objective way of tracking them against actual results. Something magical happens when you put your goals on paper. They become real. You begin to make commitments.


“Strategic planning is a business school concept that was developed when people thought they could anticipate and predict the future. How can we plan in a world that is highly uncertain?”

Uncertainty is a major problem in forward planning. However, the best solution is probably not sticking your head in the sand. Every organization has their purpose, success factors, form and capabilities challenged and threatened on a regular basis. That is exactly why to remain successful it is vital that all business owners regularly set time aside in order to ask the following key strategic questions:

Where are we now?
Where are we going?
How are we going to get there?
Strategic planning matches a business to market opportunities. To do this effectively, you need to collect, screen and analyze information about the business environment, have a clear understanding of your business and develop a clear mission with obtainable goals and objectives. Strategies will need to change as the environment does, and it is important to recognize when changes take place.

I Have a Plan

“I wrote a business plan when I started the business 15 years ago for the bankers.”

Strategic planning is often mistaken with a business plan. Business plans that were written to secure financing tend to wind up on shelves gathering dust. Strategic planning is a process that should be conducted once every five or so years. The process itself offers a huge value to any business in helping to build consensus, wrestle with environmental changes, reassess strategies and motivate. The output of a good strategic planning process is a short working document that identifies where they are headed, and an action plan to get there.

Organization Dynamics

“I could never get all of the players in my business to agree on the best way to move forward. Anyway, it is my company; shouldn’t it be my vision?”

An effective strategic planning process will help to unify a team, to get people talking, to ensure that the business owner/CEO benefits from the ideas of his/her team. The process can help to build confidence and support among your managers, bankers and owners (and even among your suppliers, and dealer network.)

Even if only a limited group is included in the process, the completion of strategic planning provides an excellent opportunity for the business owner/CEO to communicate the company’s direction to employees and to describe and emphasize the company’s values, which will play a central role in the company’s success.

The use of an outside facilitator can greatly enhance the effectiveness of the planning process working either with just with the owner or with the entire management team, and can help to keep the process on track. . There is often a strong tendency on the part of participants to try to bring the process back to today’s problems or crises or to want to stay within the company’s current and comfortable frame of thinking. An outside facilitator can help to drive the process so that new ideas and new direction are generated, gaining input from all participants.


“We don’t have a budget for planning.” With all the activities that make up running a business, having clearly defined priorities is critical. Otherwise the limited resources of a growing business will be scattered in all different directions and will end up costing more in the long run.

What are your personal goals? Are profitability, work/life balance, a motivated staff, or a notable reputation in the market, a pipedream at this point? What is the achievement of any of these goals worth? What is the value of your time? If you can’t do it on your own, enlist some help!