Four reasons business planning can feel like a waste of effort (and what to do about it...)

February 27, 2018

Let’s not kid ourselves…we’ve all been there. 


That business planning session where a whole bunch of great ideas got broken down into bite-sized things to do, captured in a plan and everyone congratulated each other on a job well done then retreated to the bar to celebrate.


After that? Nothing. Business-as-usual was resumed and you wound up feeling like the whole exercise was a bit of a waste.


Sound familiar?


In talking to folks from businesses where this has happened, we’ve discovered four common themes. We identify those themes below and provide some practical tips you can use to prevent the “wasted effort” syndrome happening in your business.


1. Business plans achieve little when prepared as a stand alone exercise


A business planning session that starts of with someone (usually the boss) saying something like “here’s our priorities for the year ahead” is unlikely to produce great outcomes. We’ve seen businesses that have taken this approach year after year and wonder why they seem to endlessly be chasing the next big idea in their industry. They never find it…


The first step in the business planning cycle should actually be an honest review of the business purpose, the vision and the how the current strategy is tracking.




Because the business plan is a shorter term road map guiding the business toward achieving those longer term aspirations and outcomes. If any action items discussed and agreed in the context of the business plan don’t fulfil that function, then the word “irrelevant” should spring to mind.


The purpose, vision and strategy review shouldn’t, by the way, simply be a rubber stamp job.


You need to critically examine all three in light of external and internal factors that might influence the business. It’s rare for a business to make massive “purpose shifts” given it’s essentially the reason the business exists beyond making money.


The vision and strategic plans are a different matter and should be critically examined to ensure ongoing relevance (indeed, strategic plans should be subject to regular review throughout the year, not just when kicking off the business planning cycle).


Taking this approach will help minimise the chances of your business lurching from one thing to the next.


2. That laundry list of things to do that reckons it’s a business plan? Not really good enough….


Effective business planning should result in exactly what it says on the box - a plan. Which is not a long list of things to do, un-timebound and with no attaching accountabilities. 


Most business planning sessions we’re involved with cover a lot of ground and do deliver quite a lot of work to be done.


That being the case, it’s critical that your list of initiatives be thoroughly prioritised - placing each one on a grid according to impact and ease/difficulty of implementation is a good place to start. That process will give you a visual making the ranking exercise much simpler than it might otherwise be.


Of course you’re not going to get 100% agreement during these discussions, and that’s a healthy thing in any business. If you simply can’t get a majority view on a contentious item, set it aside for a separate discussion. There’s nothing wrong with that approach.


Next, make sure that there’s single point accountability for each initiative agreed and prioritised. It’s likely that several people will be involved in seeing an initiative through from start to finish, but you absolutely need a single team member responsible for keeping things on track. 


And last, make sure you assign timeframes around each initiative. Not just an end date for completion but (especially for the bigger projects) dates by which agreed milestones should be achieved.


3. A set and forget approach once the plan’s prepared also won’t cut the mustard


You’d think that agreed timeframes and single point accountability should be enough to get things done, right?


While it sometimes (infrequently) might be the case, sadly it generally isn’t.


Your plans need to be regularly reviewed to ensure all those agreed milestones are being met. Generally we recommend a quarterly review process. In addition, progress on business plan initiatives should be a key part of the usual communications in your business - team meetings, email updates, informal get togethers and the like.


Why is it important to keep things under review?


In most industries and businesses change is the norm. There’s plenty of external and internal factors that can quickly derail the best of plans.


Keeping initiatives and projects under ongoing review will help you identify those factors so you can make the necessary adjustments. You also need to be prepared to dump projects and/or introduce new ones where the environment changes dramatically enough.


That’s a fact of life these days. 


4. Team members don’t buy-in when they’re not involved in the process

There’s a mountain of research and evidence that confirms employees at all levels in a business will give their best and produce “discretionary effort” when they can see how their role fits into the bigger picture and contributes to outcomes.


These days, it’s not enough for the senior folks in a business to disappear for a day or more then come back and present their teams with a list of tasks. You won’t get buy-in. What you will get is a very task-based approach to work across your team, which will put a lid on creativity and innovationf.


Some of the best business planning sessions we’ve seen involve at least one team member from each functional area.


Where the business is small enough, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the entire team being involved in the process. Some excellent ideas are hidden in plain sight, often coming from the least expected team member. There’s nothing to fear in this approach.


Where the size of the of the business means it’s not practical to include everyone, communications on outcomes and expectations following your business planning session will be really important. Give as much information to the entire team as you can, encourage discussion and questions and answer any concerns or issues as honestly as possible. 


This doesn’t mean you need to create consensus…that’s a difficult thing to achieve and harder as the business grows in size. But you do need to give team members enough information to help them understand their place in the business and allows them to give meaning to what they do on a day to day basis.


One more thing...


Don't make the resulting outputs bigger than Ben Hur. To capture attention any documentation you choose to create needs to be short and to the point.


We suggest a restatement of purpose and vision, followed by a summary (no more than a paragraph) of the current strategy.


The bulk of the plan should be simply a "what, by when, by who" broken up by project and sub-project. Keep it simple is the order of the day.


A business plan to keep the team on track need only be a couple of pages long. Feel free to download our two-page business plan template for your use.


We'd love to help


Often it helps to have someone independent run your business planning sessions. There's a host of reasons, most of which we probably don't need to spell out. Perhaps most importantly is it keeps things on track and objective.


BusinessBlades can facilitate your session, help create the appropriate outputs and with ongoing follow up and review. 


Interested? Give us a call or click here to drop us an email and we'll get back to you.


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