No Excuses Business Planning - Small Businesses Guide
by Ashlee Aldridge
As a 20+ year Chief Executive in big business turned CEO of a small business, I am frequently asked, “What is one thing that you learned at those big businesses that helps you in your small business?” I typically answer, “strategic planning”. Perhaps it’s not the most provocative answer, but certainly the most honest appraisal of what small businesses need and are often desperately lacking.
Strategic planning is a disciplined process that forces the CEO and management team to look beyond the day to day. It focuses the organization on creating an aligned and specific vision, defined goals, and the contributing ways the business expects to reach those goals. When done well, strategic planning can and should provide a framework to guide decision making, measure progress, and empower employees to not only understand the goals and objectives of the company but to also contribute to them.
Where does one begin?
There are many different methodologies out there to help guide a strategic planning process. Over the years, I have been exposed to dozens of different approaches. Across all of the nuanced differences, I found that the most effective strategic plan, is one that is usable. The strategic plan, when done well, should live and breathe within the organization for years to come. It is not a robust report that sits on a shelf, but rather a map to guide your entire team to your destination--achieving your business goals.
As such, the strategic planning language is important and needs to be established early. There are a so many terms out there that are used to mean different things to different organizations: vision, mission, objectives, goals, plans, strategies, tactics, programs, projects, etc.
Often, the type of strategic planning that is chosen will influence the hierarchy of those terms. Regardless, you need to define which terms your business is going to use, and the exact definition you are going to use for each. We recommend creating a company glossary around your plan for everyone to refer to, now and into the future.
A strategic plan should be simple to understand and easy to use. The ultimate report may contain numerous pages, with background, customer profile, market profile, etc. However, we find that a summary view is the best rally point for teams and will keep the plan relevant and usable. These are the highest order questions that we ask, in this order, to build, refresh and use the strategic plan:
• Why does this business exist (Vision)?
• Who are we (Core Values)?
• What will we do and when, e.g. over the next 5+ years (Mission)?
• When we get there, what does success look like (Goals)?
• How do we get there (Strategies)?
• What actions are needed to deliver the strategies (Tactics)?
• What investments are needed to deliver the strategies, and ultimate returns (Investment Thesis)?
• How might the strategies operate interdependently over time (Roadmap)?
• What are the plans for year 1 (Annual Operating Plan)?
• What is the budget for the strategies (Annual Budget)?
• How are we measuring our progress (Annual Strategic Goals)?
Before you grab a sheet of paper and start writing down your answers to these questions, here are a few more tips.
Strategic planning is a team sport.
Going through the strategic planning process should be collaborative, even if you are a startup (aka you are all alone). As a CEO, you want your team to participate, contribute and wrestle with the same questions that you do. Not only will the strategic plan be stronger as a result, collaboration will elicit the buy in you need. Involving the leaders is a best practice. After all, they are the ones who will do the day-to-day work in order to accomplish the goals of the strategic plan.
Strategic planning typically includes an outside facilitator (even for a small business). It can be very difficult to participate in building the plan while facilitating the process at the same time. Most often, we see a facilitator being leveraged to help build the plan once every three (3) to five (5) years. In between that time, the internal team refreshes the strategic plan annually before the annual operating plan process begins. For any small business, this is a worthy investment that yields big returns.
Strategic planning lives on, quarter by quarter. There are a variety of ways to measure and report on the strategic plan. The bigger the organization, the more complicated this can be. However, for a small business, we suggest a simple framework. Figure out what your big, hairy, audacious, strategic goals (“BHAG”) are. Then, break those down into easy- to-understand goals for what that means this year. Then, break that down farther into quarterly expectations.
Simplify the strategic plan for your broader audience.
A 2020 study showed that 76% of employees agree that having a well-defined business strategy cultivates a positive work culture. On the flip side, a MIT study showed that only 28% of executives and middle managers responsible for actually executing the business strategy could list three of their company’s strategic priorities. If the company leadership doesn’t know the business strategy, how can the employees be expected to know their company’s business strategy at all? There are three reasons for this disconnect: there is no business strategy; it has not been shared; or it’s too complicated to remember. The cure? Get one—a strategic plan. Simplify it. Socialize it.
This is where the small business can and should have a competitive advantage. There is absolutely no reason that a small business does not take the time to have a strategic plan, make it simple, and share it with their employees.
None. If your associates don’t know where you want your company to go and how you want to get there, how passionate are they going to be to help you accomplish it? As the CEO, it’s your job to inspire and motivate your people, even if you only have 5 of them. You need to take the time to explain it to them and help them get on board. You need everyone on board when you are a small business.
Progress against the strategic plan should be shared.
Studies show that over 61% of employees do NOT know the business’s mission statement. Notably, 41% of employees will leave a company if they don’t feel engaged. To increase employee engagement and help them feel connected to the company’s vision and mission, report your progress against those BHAG goals, each quarter.
Strategic plans shift.
The one thing about a plan is that it will inevitably change. This is also true of your strategic plan. Your strategic plan is about bringing the vision to life by accomplishing your mission. The vision should not change; it needs to be so lofty that it can outlive many missions. Missions should not change except once every 5 or so years.
Strategies, however, do change, and usually every couple of years. It depends on the strategy and why it was there in the first place. What was it trying to accomplish? Did it accomplish that? Be sure to refresh the strategic plan every year. You want to make sure you get your strategies aligned correctly, and the specific goals are measurable, reasonable, and attainable. Most of the time, your strategies will roll over from one year to the next. On occasion, you will have accomplished a strategy, and need to work through the process of developing a new one that helps you meet your mission objective.
If there is only one thing you do for your company this year, it should be to pull out your strategic plan and refresh it. Or, if you don’t have one, get one. There has never been a more important time to do so. Going through the rigor of a strategic planning progress provides a platform for you and your team to think through, and potentially identify, new areas of growth, revenue, optimization and profit. Given the level of uncertainty in the market and economy as a result of the pandemic, remember, it is your job as the CEO to think about the future, invest in it for your business, your customers and your teams.