You’ve probably heard the term “strategic planning” used so often that the phrase makes your eyes glaze over.
But planning is important for any business. If we don’t plan, we don’t know what our goals and objectives are, and if we don’t know our goals and objectives; we can’t effectively measure our business’ success.
So why do many business owners resist planning? The universal response you get when you ask this question is that strategic planning feels like “meeting for the sake of meeting.” Many business owners believe nothing gets done after a strategic planning meeting. That is often true if the business only focuses on strategic planning — those high level strategies and goals.
To have an effective planning process, those strategies and goals need to be translated into action items that can be measured for success.
The follow-up to strategic planning is business planning. We use a business plan to set measurable goals and outcomes. A business plan takes strategies and puts them into action. So now you’re saying,“Those are fine words and phrases, but what does it really mean?”
A business plan is more than a task list of items to check off. A business plan puts detail around what we need to do, why we need to do it, who is responsible for accomplishing it, and the outcome we expect if the steps we have planned are implemented correctly.
Let’s look at a specific example of successful strategic and business planning. Several years ago, I worked with a direct mail business that had seen its success from the 1980s and 1990s turn to substantial losses. When I was asked to assess the organization and make recommendations about whether it was viable, the business was close to shuttering its doors.
One of the business’s major issues was failure to plan for the future. It had become a typewriter in a computer-driven age. Some thought direct mail was dead, there was no future for postal mailings. But the market research dispelled that belief. Rather than fearing the worst, the business began developing strategies for its future. It planned for ways to exist, compete and thrive in a changing market.
But those strategies would not be successful without a business plan. With strategies identified, the business started identifying what it needed to do. It wanted improved customer research, targeted mailings and electronic communications, following up to postal mail. With each activity, the business asked why it was taking the step or why it was eliminating other activities. It focused on smart mailings — mailing in order to get responses. The business owners realized that more mailings might generate more money, but it also generates more expenses, while targeted mailing generates more profit. And it developed an electronic communications program because customers were asking for electronic communications
Employee involvement is key to this entire business planning process. The people who are needed to execute the plan need to know what they are doing, why they are doing it and how they will be evaluated on their performance. The direct mail company engaged employees from all levels within the business to identify how best to accomplish its goals. People operating the presses discussed how and why color would be used in mailings; those on the mailing inserters and sorters had input into what could and could not be mailed; employees on the fulfillment and customer service side of the business had input into how many calls they could handle and how many items they could ship.
With this involvement, employees understood how each of their pieces fit into the overall success (or failure) of the business. They also understood how their success would be measured — individually, as a department and as a company.
The results were what we expect when planning is done and implemented properly — within eight months, the business had shored up a nearly $1 million loss and generated a $500,000 profit.
Two years later, the business is consistently operating at 20 percent profit margins and is on track for continued positive growth.
Christopher Cipoletti has owned and operated a consulting firm since 1994 for businesses and nonprofits, focusing on strategic planning, fundraising and executive coaching.