If you’re anything like me, you’ve come to accept the old Yiddish saying “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht” … “Man Plans, and God Laughs.” This might not be the most sound business planning strategy, but it helps me prioritize how much time and effort I’m going to put into documenting our plans.
Take 2020 for example … our annual business planning retreat happened in January. Projects were in full swing in February. The entire world stopped in March. Certainly, a global pandemic was unexpected and changed the course of business for companies around the world. But quarterly budget freezes, economic risk factors, and political landscapes impact our businesses all the time.
Our planning rhythm has become less annual and more real time. Much like our performance reviews. Instead of waiting all year − or even until a Quarterly Business Review, we’re actively adjusting the sails and managing the rudder daily. And yet, our North Star remains our documented strategic plan for the year … the “big rocks” or “key goals” that keep the business moving forward even as waves crash over the bow.
So, rather than investing countless hours across lines of business and asking for deep data analysis that takes time away from the good work of running the company, I’d like to suggest putting those types of reports in place, so you have easy access to them at any time on any given day. And then pivot your planning sessions to focus on a few key topics.
What is working well and should it continue?
Across your executive leadership team and management levels, how does your team define success? Are there any programs, processes, or workflows that are cruising along smoothly and should not be disrupted? Look across Business Development, HR, Operations, Product/Engineering, Marketing, Sales, Customer Success, Partner Channel, and so on. Identify key wins or successes, and then figure out how to package them to replicate and scale across other departments.
Can you create a simple checklist or playbook to implement or modify a similar approach for other teams to learn from the best practices of others? Has one team implemented a tool that has transformed their efficiencies? Could other teams benefit? Never let good work go unnoticed − not just in terms of team member recognition, but also in terms of replication and scalability. Learn from your successes and implement similar success across the entire organization.
Make best practice sharing and solution implementation a collaborative effort across your company in the coming quarter/half/year and incentivize it as a priority to help improve your business.
What is not working and how should we fix it?
In spite of our best plans, some things just don’t work as we envisioned them. It could be a person, a process, a program, a partnership, or even a product. But if it’s not working as expected, be sure to put corrective actions in place. Identify underperformance and determine what steps can be taken to drive improvement. Assign responsibility. And timelines. Determine whether a best practice from another team could be leveraged here. Identify milestones for improvement, and then watch the data − if it’s trending in the right direction, learn from your corrective action process. If the issue continues to underperform, hard decisions might be required.
Do not let a negative issue fester. If corrective actions are not working, a new strategy is required, and sometimes that requires terminating a program, process, or person. Gather the input you need from the resources you trust, and then make evidence-based decisions swiftly and decisively, while over-communicating the new strategic direction with stakeholders. Make sure you have a new strategic decision before acting rashly. But then implement it with your full support behind it.
Nothing can be perfect all the time. But the way you respond to and resolve the imperfect sets a tone for your leadership style, and has ripple effects throughout your organization, your client engagements, your partnerships, and your brand reputation. If you have to adjust your sails and point your bow in a new direction, be sure all your stakeholders are on board.
What opportunities are emerging in the market and how will we capitalize on them?
Keeping your eye on the horizon is imperative if you want to compete in the future. Understanding your market dynamics, trends in the industry, and how political, social, and economic climates are impacting your business will help you plan for the short and long term. For example, when the pandemic hyper-accelerated digital transformation and any business process that could be managed from home was suddenly managed from home, the entire market shifted. Video conferencing services, collaboration platforms, and productivity tools skyrocketed. But while the tech industry was scrambling to meet demand, it would be short-sighted to think that level of investment in new technologies could continue forever. Certainly, once the pandemic ended and people returned to in-person events, working from offices, and meeting face to face, the need for digital communications would slow. Don’t get me wrong − the entire industry has shifted and there are many hybrid opportunities, but the demand for digital communications could not continue to skyrocket forever. There was always going to be a plateau.
Taking some of the key learnings from that accelerated experience and turning them into new solutions for people to use in their professional and personal lives will pay dividends in the future. Identifying emerging trends will help you tailor your product and solution offerings to the emerging and anticipated needs of your target customers. The industry you are in is the easiest industry to disrupt. What if you had to replace your services with an automated solution. What would that look like? How could you transform manual processes into digital genius? There’s no room in the future for a “this is how we’ve always done it” mentality. But don’t wait for an annual business planning retreat to brainstorm new ideas. Reward creativity. Invite your team members to submit new ideas constantly. Think of ways to accelerate innovation throughout your organization and implement the processes to develop new solutions regularly. Your path to market will reveal itself if you’re anticipating market needs. And your frontline workers are intimately familiar with what the market needs. Invite them to the table where courses are charted.
What investments are required to make that happen?
The old adage “it takes money to make money” is true. But it also takes creativity, experience, mindshare, and passion. And you can’t buy those. Invest in your most valuable assets − your people. Inspire them, encourage them, empower them, reward them, and see how your business grows. As it turns out, people like to be challenged. And the more challenged they feel, the more creative they become.
Stop thinking of your employees as line items in your OpEx spreadsheet. Start thinking of them as solution builders and business intelligence gatherers. The pains your employees have are waiting to be solved with a solution you could create. The pains your customers are experiencing are solutions you could deploy. Your employees are listening to those pains daily. Incentivize them to turn problems into solutions. Invest in the discovery process. Invest in the solution building process. Package the solutions. Take them to market.
Sometimes investments are expenses. Sometimes you need to host an event or pay for a training program or create a campaign. But in every case, those investments should reap the reward of building relationships − with customers, partners, and colleagues. Relationships that can lead to referrals and revenue. Consider your investments carefully. Ask team members to build a business case − if they attend an event for $X, can you expect $10X in opportunities to result from the event? What is your multiplier? Establish a baseline ROI for investments, and then encourage your team members to present business cases that will help them help you grow your business. Those business cases become your business plan. Your playbook. Your navigational chart. Pay attention to where your employees think the business is headed and invest accordingly. Use discernment. You’re still the Captain of this ship, but you can’t see everything all the time. So, listen to your crew.
Are there any cuts required to optimize business operations?
Inevitably, changing course means you’ll need some new resources and will not require others. No need to carry arctic equipment into the tropics, if you will. Reprioritize. Reskill. Reorganize. Keep your eye on your North Star − even if the path you take to get there changes along the way. But do not hold onto the unnecessary cargo. It weighs you down and makes your journey slower and more expensive.
Stop paying for systems and tools you don’t need anymore. Leverage all the features and functionality of the tools you’ve already purchased but haven’t fully deployed. Reskill your top performing talent, even if their assignments haven’t changed.
Check in often. Adjust in real time. Don’t wait for an annual plan to optimize your business processes. The market currents change too often to idle in one place for too long.
Try this super simple business planning template and ask each line of business lead to fill it out. Compile them into a single document and use it for your business planning retreat. Then document the key takeaways and turn them into your strategic plan for the year. Let us know how much faster and more efficient it makes your meetings flow.