As the cottonwoods in my neighbor’s yard drift from green to yellow, fall winds push away the feel of our long, hot summer. This time of year brings reminders of change and signs of transition all around us.
From a business standpoint, this a great time to reflect on the tremendous changes we’ve seen recently in economic conditions, government, health care, technology and the very nature of the way we operate. These changes bring both challenges and opportunities. The best way to navigate in this dynamic business environment is with a plan.
The best way to lead a business forward is with a sound strategic action plan. Maybe you’re disciplined in your planning processes — or maybe not. But now’s the time to prepare for the coming year with vigor, purpose and direction.
Strategic planning simply means looking at all the activities in a business and making sure they’re all working together, serving a common goal and just plain making sense financially, operationally or otherwise. Your planning process is not just a one-day-a-year activity, it needs to be cyclical and continuous. This means always knowing what your plan is, changing the plan as circumstances change and keeping everyone in the loop.
If you’re not a natural planner, the process might feel a bit daunting. So let me offer some simple steps:
- Step outside. Thinking about the big picture of where you want to go and what you want the business to be is hard to do from the vantage point of the desk at which you sit at every day. Strategic planning requires dedicating a few hours to being outside the office in a place where you and your team can think, discuss and share ideas comfortably. Be creative with this one. Whether you take your partners or leadership team to a coffee shop, the Wine County Inn or Gateway Canyons, dedicating time outside the office for planning is the first and most important step. Why? Start any planning process with a review of the vision for the company. We all get so busy running a business it’s easy to forget why we’re here in the first place. Sharing thoughts and getting some consensus on values and direction is a critical step in the planning process.
- Review. What’s going well? What needs improvement? Pull out the financials and look at what numbers are going up as a percent of sales and what are going down. What are the factors outside the business that are having the most effects? What customers are growing in sales or who’s shrinking? What’s selling? What’s not? Make sure you aren’t just throwing out opinions or theories at this point. This is a time to take a cold, hard look at the facts.
- Don’t forget about the customer. A good strategic plan is one that finds a path to business growth that both delights the customer and makes for smooth company operations. Unfortunately, making the customer happy is not always the easiest way to run a business. When everyone around the table at your planning retreat works for the company, it’s easy to get too focused on making a plan that revolves around making their jobs easier and more effective. But don’t forget the customer. Ultimately, if you aren’t delighting the customer, there’s no reason to make internal operations smooth. Make sure your strategic plan is one that will thrill the customer and your staff.
- Focus. In any planning process, you’re going to identify a lot of things that can be improved. Don’t get overwhelmed. The key to an effective plan is that you do NOT address everything, but that you focus on the most important things you want to improve. If you try to do everything, you’ll get nothing done. Instead, identify the most critical issues and the things that have the most impact on long-term results. Put all your energy into these top three, four or five goals.
- Take action. You now have a few goals in front of you, so figure out how to get there. Achieving goals is complex and not normally done in just a few simple steps. Start at the beginning, with the first steps. Figure out where to begin and develop a specific action plan for who does what, when and how.
- Make it visible. An action plan buried in a file on the server isn’t going to stay top of mind. Put your strategic plan up on the wall, a white board or wherever you think it will be seen frequently. This plan will have to grow and change as action steps are taken and new steps are developed. Keep everyone in the loop by making the plan a visual element of daily office life.
By making strategy part of the culture in your organization, planning will become a habit that repeats itself. It all starts with a commitment to a dedicated planning exercise, but will result in a business with vigor, purpose and direction.