There are two extremes that small business owners can fall into when it comes to business planning: under-planning and over-planning. The first one leads you astray while the other one slows you down. How do you strike a balance in planning so that it really benefits your business? Stephen Krausse recognizes the critical importance of planning as a key business principle that small business owners should consider. In this episode, he introduces a four-step planning process that works efficiently for small businesses when done right. He also tackles the concept of the planning horizon, an important consideration when building the habit of planning. Stick up to the end to get some recommendations on what planning tools may work best for your business.
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Planning For Small Business Success | Up And To The Right | Episode 043
We’re going to talk a little bit about planning, the second principle in my series on business principles. Planning is one of the key principles in successful small business operations, but it can also be a trap that I call plancrastination. We’re going to talk a little bit about what a plan is, how much planning is needed, some tools regarding planning or some tools we can use to plan. Is there a planning process that you can standardize that works and practical for small businesses?
This is episode 43, Planning for Small Business Success. The principle at play that we’ve talked about already a little bit is planning itself. That’s one of the key principles that we talked about in episode 41. The first thing I want to talk about is, does planning matter to small business? If you lack planning, you take action without intent and that wastes time and money. If you over-plan, you waste time and you push improvements down the road. The benefits of those improvements or the things you might be gaining by having implemented something new, you don’t get as quickly because you keep planning. You’re over-planning and you’re pushing the results down the road as well.
Those are the things we want to avoid. We need to create a balance around those two items: over-planning and under-planning. By nature, I’m a planner sometimes and I’ll get into this mode of planning where I start digging into something beyond the scope of helpful. I’ve recognized that I do that. As small business owners in general, we don’t necessarily like to plan. We like to fly by the seat of our pants and I’ll do that too in some cases. It depends. If I’m thinking about it, when it’s a technology issue or something that might involve something nerdy and cool, I will tend to dig into that more deeply than is appropriate for the project or for that business. I have to reign myself in when I’m looking at technology solutions.
Where I might under-plan is in accounting structure or something like that, where it isn’t my forte and doesn’t pique my interest. Part of that is the concept of if you’re interested in something or if something excites you as I like to nerd out on software, that’s great. It does create an environment where I might tend to dig into that a little bit too much. Whereas if it’s something I’m not particularly interested in, I won’t plan enough. We have to find some balance, and that’s what I want to talk about in part as well. How do we create a situation, a framework, a structure for ourselves in our business that is formal enough to get work done, but informal enough to be something that we can implement and continue using as small business owners with limited resources? That’s the balance that we need to strike.Plan, but don’t make planning the focus of your business. Click To Tweet
What is a plan? You can look in the dictionary or go to Merriam-Webster.com or whatever and find the definition of a plan. It’s fairly simple and I’m not going to even bother with it because I don’t think it’s helpful to us as business owners. For me, a plan needs to be a series of listed milestones and actions that when complete, will achieve a specific outcome. There’s a lot of stuff there that is in the dictionary definition of a plan. There are three components in that definition that are critical to being able to use a plan successfully in a small business situation.
One is that you have a stated outcome. You have to understand what you’re trying to accomplish specifically before you put action into it. The second thing is milestones. It’s important that we don’t confuse a milestone with an action item. A milestone is a guidepost along the way, whether it’s time-sensitive, resource associated or something like that. It’s a specific point of progression along the road to that specific outcome. It’s not a specific task. It’s not, “Pay this vendor for this process or this item.” It’s, “Achieve this specific part of the journey to the outcome of your plan.” We need to have milestones, and we’ll talk about this a little bit more because the larger the plan is, the less of it we’re going to be able to focus on at one time as small businesses.
The next step is the action step. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where stuff gets done and that’s very important. The most important thing that we do is the action to achieve the goal. There’s always the argument that you have to plan well-enough so that you don’t run into unforeseen things or whatever. There’s a balance we have to strike as small business owners because we don’t have unlimited resources. We have limited resources and time to associate with any plan, whether it’s new product development or implementation of a new process. Even planning the entire startup or development startup growth, expansion and maturity phases of our business. When you plan within those regions, you still need to have these components so that you can have a plan that makes sense that is cogent. What is a plan? It’s a series of milestones and actions that when they’re done, will achieve a specific outcome. It’s that simple. We don’t want to overcomplicate it. That’s what it is. The three elements that are in that statement are critical to success.
The Planning Horizon
Once you understand what a plan is, the next concept that I want to talk about is the concept of planning horizon. We only want to plan to the extent of our ability to act. We go back to those limited resources. We only have so much that we can do. If we plan beyond our ability to act, it’s very possible that by the time we get to the point where we could take those actions, the situation would have changed. All the time we spent planning, that particular part of a project was wasted because now we have to change the plan anyway. What does that mean? In practical terms, that’s where we use our milestones. When you create a plan, you have this outcome that you desire. You add milestones and you can put those milestones further out than your ability to act. The action plan itself, we limit to the timeframe where we can plan to take action, where we can foresee the availability of resources and hold them accountable to get things done, whether that’s us, an outside vendor or a coworker. We only plan to the extent of our ability to act. That’s our planning horizon and that’s also critical.
There’s a four-step planning process that works pretty well. The first step is to identify the outcome that you want. The next step is to determine the starting point. The next step is to list your milestones, which we talked about a little bit already. Finally, you want to list actions within your planning horizon. Let’s talk about each of those things individually. What does it mean when I talk about identifying the outcome? It might sound a no-brainer. I’ve seen a lot of work go down the road to a destination that no one looked at in the first place. People just get on the road and drive. They don’t know where they’re headed. The first step is to back up and say, “Where are we trying to go in the first place with this project?” For small businesses, this needs to be a single sentence that describes the outcome.
Let’s take an example. We want to coordinate customer interactions so that it’s all being done the same way. We want to structure it and maybe part of the structure is having it in a common location. We’ll go through that example throughout this process. It’s important to keep planning as simple as possible for small business. We do need to plan but we can’t make planning the focus of our business because we don’t have the resources for that. I don’t know any small business owners who use Gantt chart in their day-to-day operations. If you don’t know what a Gantt chart is, don’t even worry about it. You don’t need to know. It’s a project management tool that most small businesses can’t afford to use because they’re too complicated and take too many resources. That’s the point.
We have to create practical plans that we can write down and document without spending too much time, follow without spending too much time and then repeat. A process that we can use that we don’t feel bad about, “I have to plan this thing,” because we dread the whole concept of it because we’ve made it so burdensome. We have to keep it simple. We’ve identified the outcome, then we go back to what is the starting point. In order to get somewhere, you do need to understand where the destination is, but you also need to know where you’re starting from.
Let’s take that example with the customer interaction that we were talking about before. Maybe we have three people who deal with customers and each has their own communication methods, schedule and information storage. Joe uses sticky notes to document everything on a wall behind his desk. Suzanne wants everything on a spreadsheet and Stacy writes everything down in a planner. Those may individually be very successful methods of doing business and that’s our starting point. Those things don’t fit the outcome that we want because we just said we wanted it to be coordinated and structured, and so we have to do something about it. That’s the next step. What is the difference between the outcome that we’re trying to get to and our starting point? In a business language, we might call that a gap analysis. The difference between where we want to go and where we are. This can be the hardest part and it’s also one of the most important parts of planning. This is where you have to dig into how do you articulate the difference between the coordinated structure that you want and the disparate systems that everybody is using.
It’s also important because if you don’t know what you want to achieve with a project, you’re going to spend a lot of energy going around in different directions that aren’t going to get you to the outcome that you want. You ended up taking a winding road to your outcome instead of the most direct path. We don’t have the time or the resources to wind any more than we absolutely have to. The gap analysis that we might have in this scenario is we want a common database and a common communication process for a cohesive customer experience, so that each customer has the same experience. We have a common database so that if somebody takes a vacation, the information is stored in the database so that the other staff can still get to it and handle that customer while that particular salesperson is gone.
The fact that we don’t have a common database and a common process is how we support the project outcome by having a coordinated customer activity and a structured interaction process. Once we’ve identified that gap, the difference between what we want and what we have, then you go back to listing the milestones. What are the significant points that you’re going to go through to get from where you are to where you want to be? These can be significant dates. It can be long lead items if you have something that’s going to take a while to get. You may have things that you can or should outsource. If you don’t have expertise in an area or equipment to produce something, you might need to outsource something. You might need temporary help if you need to do a data entry project or something like that, where you don’t have the staff on hand to do all the data entry. If it’s going to take an inordinate amount of time, you might want to bring someone in to do that.
Some examples in this particular customer service project example, you might need to research database options. That might be a milestone. You’ve researched the database options and you know what they are. You might want to do a needs analysis. You might want to determine what your needs are, what your customer needs are and that might be a milestone. You might want to choose between a dedicated CRM or another database option if you want a common database. You can share an Excel spreadsheet. If that does the job better than another solution, maybe that’s the right choice. You need to make that determination and that can be a milestone.
If you determine that a CRM or customer relationship management system is the right answer, you might say, “We need to do a research of CRMs and we need to get the three that we think are the most likely to be useful to us for further review.” That could be a milestone. The next milestone might be having selected the CRM, training the staff, entering data. Those are all milestones that may incorporate many steps individually below them. A milestone is going to depend on the project and the groups that are working on the project. There’s no hard and fast rule necessarily to what a significant milestone is. It’s what works for you and your planning process.
The next step is to list actions. We’re going to go back to our planning horizon, where we only want to list actions specific. You don’t want to dig into this detail until you know you can take action on it. You only want to plan specific actions within your capability to complete those actions. I usually keep this to about a week. Everything else that I leave for the next week, I leave as milestones. I say, “Next week, we’re going to be working on this.” It doesn’t always come down to a week. It can be the next rolling five-day window, rolling seven-day window or whatever. That’s dependent on your operation. You may have a production line where you have to plan 14 or 20 days out. You have to have specific actions for a project related to that production line that is that long.
For example, if you have to shut the line down to do another customer’s run on your production line, then you may have to plan twenty days in advance and you might have specific actions related to that project. That’s okay. I’m just saying it’s important to identify the timeframe within which you can expect to take action and only plan the detail within that timeframe so you’re not wasting time. By the time you get past your visible window of action, the game has changed enough that you might not need this action or this action might have changed, or the order might have changed. If something is routine, that isn’t what I’m talking about when I talk about planning when it comes to a project.
The list of actions is dependent on your project and you need to understand what your planning horizon looks like so that you can make a realistic plan of action or list of actions. I wanted to touch a little bit about how much planning is enough. In episode 21, I talked about plancrastination, which is procrastination as a result of over-planning. You’re planning and never getting any work done. In that episode, I talked about a specific rule that is helpful. That is if additional planning will not provide a significant increase in the odds of success, then you’re done planning and it’s time to act.
As you look at your planning process, identify where you are and say, “How much more planning is going to be helpful?” This has to be a conscious question because if I don’t ask the conscious question, I end up continuing to plan instead of saying, “Planning needs to be done. It’s time to do some work now.” It’s not that planning does not work, but planning doesn’t get you results. That’s a good guideline that I like to use to help me to reign in the planning process, “Is any more planning going to create a significant increase in the odds of success for this project?”
We’ve talked about what a plan is for business. We’ve talked about the planning process that I use. We’ve talked about some guidelines around the specific steps and how to decide whether or not you’re planning enough or too much. I talked in the introduction about what tools you might use to plan. I mentioned the Gantt chart. Unless you’re absolutely fluid with a Gantt chart, I would not recommend using them for small business planning. What tools are useful or simply a function of what works in your situation for you. Most of the time, when I’m doing planning for my businesses, I use a notebook. Moleskine, I like them. They write better than other notebooks. I don’t know what to tell you but that’s what I like. You could do it with a spiral notebook that you got for $0.99. It will work fine.
I write in a notebook and I use two software packages depending on the project. If I’m doing an internal project where it’s just me, I use a program called Todoist, which is a list manager. It works great, very simple and easy. If I have a project that’s going to require that I communicate with a customer, I use a program called Monday. It’s a cloud platform where you can have project management and it’s got a lot of other features. You don’t have to use those for this particular thing, for project management, but you can invite customers to view the project. That doesn’t add to your cost. You can also invite them as editors and then you can pay a little bit more for the software. That’s okay too. I like to have clients just have read-only access to see what the status of a project is. They can contact me if they have any questions, rather than having other people modifying the project, then maybe me not seeing an update and not knowing that something got changed. I like to keep track of that a little differently.
The tools are what’s comfortable for you. There are lots of project management tools. I don’t recommend digging into those unless you have complex projects or maybe you have experienced with them. In which case, if that works for you, great. You feel like it’s going to provide you with some accountability or something that will help you. Usually what I will do is write the project down in the notebook, get my thoughts together and then I will document it in a Google doc or put it on my Google drive. My tasks will either go in Monday or Todoist. That works for me, but you can do it any way you want. I find that the activity of writing helps clarify my thinking. Documenting it in a Word processor makes it legible for other people. Using a to-do list of some kind, whether it’s Monday or Todoist, gives me date-driven stuff for the action steps.
To back up through that a little bit, if you go to the four-step process that I talked about before when we talk about identifying the outcome and determining your starting point, those are just writing processes. That I do in my notebook. I’ll list the milestones that I immediately can think of as part of that writing process, then I’ll shift it from the notebook to the Google doc. I’ll start putting the action items to achieve those milestones as they become appropriate in Todoist. I don’t go in and put every milestone in every task I expect into my to-do list, whether it’s Monday or Todoist. I put the ones I’m going to do that week. That’s it and that works for me
The tool is not as important as having control of the process. What’s important is that you have a tool that works for you in your environment, whatever that is. It could be a chalkboard, a whiteboard, an Excel spreadsheet or a Gantt chart. Whatever will work for you or whatever you feel the most comfortable with and will work in your environment. In terms of practical action, what I would suggest is maybe make a quick template in whatever Word processor you use. You can write a description and list the steps that we talked about. Don’t fill it out, just put project description, step one, step two, step three, step four. It goes back to identify the outcome, identify the starting point, list the milestones and list the actions required to achieve them.
Keep in mind and write these two things in the document also. Number one is the statement about your planning horizon. Only plan details within the capability of your business to act. That way, you’re not planning action that you can’t deal with in a timeframe that’s reasonable. The second thing is the guideline that if additional planning will not provide a significant chance or a significant increase in the odds of success, then stop planning and start working. The last piece of that is to keep it short. A plan for small business for most things, not the action list but the actual plan itself because there can be a lot of actions for pretty much any plan, should be on one piece of paper. You shouldn’t have to go any deeper than one piece of paper for most plans for small business. If you are going deeper than that, you might be falling into the trap of plancrastination.
You also need to look at planning versus the value of getting it done. That’s not a hard and fast rule. When I start writing beyond one page for a plan, I have to go back and say, “This is more complicated than it needs to be or I’m adding too much detail, or maybe there are two projects here.” That’s the other thing. If you’re starting to incorporate so much content that you can’t document the scope of a project on a single page, you might have two projects on your hands. That’s something to keep in mind. Create a template that you can use that has those components and then start using that. Keep in mind that we need to plan. We need to keep planning as simple and as effective as possible so that we continue to do it with a process that we can repeat so that we can get better at the process. Also, have something we can rely on and build a habit around. That planning at the right level for our business becomes a habit that we can integrate into our day-to-day lives.
That’s it. Next episode, we’re going to talk about communication. I anticipate that it will probably be a slightly longer episode because there are a lot of things going on with communication. We will talk about video communication. That’s a big thing. I did an episode on video communication. We’ll dig into that a little bit and we’ll talk about how to apply the principle of good communication in your small business. Our vision at Beyond 50 Percent is successful entrepreneurship and small business ownership is the rule, not the exception. We help business owners develop solutions and fix specific problems or implement new business processes or features that enabled you to add value according to your passion. If you need some help with that, give us a call. With that, it’s time for me to get back to work.
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