Make the most of your planning efforts

It’s the nature of small business that planning is easily overlooked, put off, or done (ironically enough) on a catch-as-catch-can basis. This can lead to frustration and unproductive effort with everything from the annual budget to a strategic plan.

Here are three rules that can make planning efforts (more) effective:

Treat planning as a management tool, not an end in itself. Connect decisions to actions so high priority items get attention. Use the plan to align different parts of your business so everyone is singing from the same sheet of music. When it comes time to review results, use the plan’s goals as benchmarks to help determine what worked and what didn’t.

Engage heads and hearts. There is a good deal of evidence that intuition and analysis are a powerful combination. For more on this check out Modesto Maidique’s “Intuition Isn’t Just about Trusting your Gut.”

Prepare for the unexpected rather than trying to predict the future. Recognize the unknown and uncontrollable by explicitly identifying the assumptions on which your business and plan depends. This will help you ask ‘what-if’ questions, explore risks, and resist the urge to get too detailed.

Here are four frequently overlooked organizational elements that can make the difference between a productive process and a waste of time:

Create a framework in advance. It’s easier to paint a picture if you are told whether your painting a landscape or a portrait, how much time you can take, and the materials available. Planning is similar. What are the assumptions (see above)? Which specific opportunities should be considered? What issues need to be addressed?

Break the process into basic activities. Planning requires championing the process, information gathering, idea generation, analysis, discussion and decision-making. Often it is necessary to go back and forth between these different activities, such as when a discussion reveals the need for more information. Being mindful of each one of these as a separate activity will help prevent overlooking an essential ingredient.

Assign roles and responsibilities to assure effective participation. Not everyone who participates can or should be a decision maker.  Others are needed to carry out the other essential activities. In a small company, some will need to wear several hats. Connect individual assignments to the process so participants see how they fit into the big picture.

Communicate about the process, progress and results throughout. In the absence of information, speculation and worst-case scenarios will often fill the void. Everyone doesn’t need to know every detail, but honest sharing of non-confidential, non-sensitive information will reduce stress and lay a solid foundation for implementation.

Think back on your planning experiences and let me know which, if any, of the above were overlooked or could have helped.


Karen Utgoff, principal of Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting, is a market-oriented business strategist based in Amherst, MA. Learn more at

© Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting 2011. All rights reserved.

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