Bulletproof Business Planning

The only thing worse than not planning at all, is going to all the effort of articulating a compelling business plan that does not get executed. I've never taken a poll, but I'd guess that unexecuted plans are one of the top reasons that so many people feel dismayed, dejected, and disconsolate about business planning.

As a consultant, I can't take ownership for a client's plan, and I can't ensure its execution, but I can take a number of steps to dramatically reduce the wiggle room that allows people to shirk their responsibilities. Over the years I have talked a lot about creating a reasonable line-of-sight between high-level strategy and real tactical actions. Over the past 6 months, I have learned to take that concept to a whole new level. The line of sight concept still applies, but now I am advocating a more robust connection between the strategic and operational parts of a business plan...and a much more comprehensive tactical plan.

The Strategic Business Planning Process

My integrated planning model incorporates 5 key principles as you move from the top (very strategic) to the bottom (very tactical) of the model and the corresponding portion of your plan. As you move from strategic to tactical:

  • The planning horizon (measured in time) decreases.
  • The level of detail increases.
  • The specificity of the associated targets and metrics increases.
  • The number of people involved with planning and execution increases.
  • The level of staff involved in planning and execution decreases.

You can read a couple things into the principles I've outlined above: don't try to plan the vision and strategy of your organization with a cast of thousands and don't let the CEO tell junior managers how to do their job. A company's senior management team, and to some extent the Board (but that's a topic for another newsletter), is responsible for the creation and ownership of vision and high-level strategy. Inclusiveness is a nice concept, but save it for where it can do some good.

As we move down the planning model to more operational and tactical planning, we need to involve more operational and tactical employees to articulate good plans. The people closest to execution, and most accountable for a particular set of results, are the people that will be able to articulate the best plans. Of course, these plans must satisfy the higher level strategy and objectives articulated by the senior folks. If people articulate the plans they will be responsible for, and name themselves as accountable, the plans are more likely to be executed than plans that are thrust upon them.

This sounds simple enough in theory, but in practice, it is hard work. The executive team needs to have faith in mid-level and junior management to articulate plans that will serve the strategy. And the junior staff need to step way outside their operational comfort zones, and voluntarily put their necks on the line for success or failure of execution.

With more people (and more junior people) involved at the tactical end of the process, the plans can be much more specific and measurable. To create bulletproof business plans:

  • Ensure a clear and compelling link between the actions being proposed and the operational plan (and ultimately the strategy of your organization). Don't execute actions that won't help achieve the plan.
  • Include clear timelines that make sense in the context of the broader plan. The due dates in the action plan must line up to the broader milestones and targets of the operational plan.
  • Articulate crystal clear accountabilities. My rule of thumb: if it's not perfectly clear who is supposed to do what, it won't get done.

Of course, we need a disciplined process for tracking and refreshing our plan on an ongoing basis, but the less wiggle room we allow now, the more successful we will be.

Improve your Business Plan

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