Making Business Plans Work
Many of us have spent countless hours thinking about and documenting plans for either our business or non-profit organization. There is a sense of satisfaction with the completion of the final draft that is shared by all involved. Far too often that document is filed or left in a desk drawer to be revised in a year’s time. Many have even reported that they gave up on the planning process because it just didn’t work. I often remember the president of a very well-managed company once stating that the team had become expert on writing business plans, but not real good on making them a reality.
In their book Execution, The Discipline of Getting Things Done Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan discusses this very subject. Among other issues, they suggest that business planning has three important areas of development and implementation. The first is the actual development and documentation of the plan. The second is the execution and the third is the monitoring of progress.
Having been involved with the development of business plans for a wide variety of organization, we can report that the rewriting of a new plan, the year after original, is considerably easier and done with greater understanding of the process and the environment. During the initial process, the importance of Vision, Mission, and Core Values is often discussed but not appreciated until implementation is experienced. Far too often, the group will search for and adopt those ideas from other organizations that might be admired in their industry or in the general business world. A Vision Statement which includes phases such as, being recognized as a “world class” business is an example of such a lack of internal reflection. Core Values which included “service to customers and clients” are admirable but shouldn’t just reflect what others in your business are saying.
Our experience indicates that the best plans are the result of a number of meetings, with time in between to reflect on the discussions and conclusions which transpired. Organizations often try to develop a plan during a weekend retreat, with the hope that removal from the pressures of daily activities will provide for an opportunity for focus and reflection. If properly organized, with an opportunity for later review, this method can be effective. We prefer to hold short weekly or bi-weekly sessions each focusing on one part of the plan. Each new session begins with a review of the previous session conclusions and time is allotted for either agreement or modification.
The plan development is the primary responsibility of the Board Chair, Board Members, and the Chief Executive, but the involvement of others during the discussions expands the knowledge base and the quality of the plan. The impact of board involvement is reinforced in our recent white paper, A Conversation about Board Engagement. Members of the board, along with key staff members, should be involved either in the full session or in sub-committees on specific areas of the plan. Regardless of the organization’s size, staff members are key in the development of goals and action plans.
It is easy to get bogged down in the development process. Often leaders have read a book on planning or attended a seminar. Once they launch into the discussions involved, they find themselves spending an excessive amount of time unproductively. We once worked with a company that would not allow us to discuss a Mission Statement because they had spent the previous year discussing that issue. Overtime they returned to that subject and reviewed their previous work, some would ask for another modification. We wished that we had started with them a year earlier, because any knowledgeable coach would have facilitated closing that discussion on a timely basis
Once the plan is written, goals established, and action plans developed its implementation needs to become part of the fabric of the organization’s leadership. Follow through must not just be something that is done before the next board meeting. It needs to be part of the discipline of the business, in the same way sales, service, production, quality, and finance are.
Goals need to be broken down into actions to be accomplished by individual staff or board members. Those staff members’ performance evaluations need to be linked to the timely accomplishment of those action steps. Recognition and rewards should accompany successful completion of each action step. The ownership of the plan cannot be solely left with the owner or board but must be embraced throughout the entire organization.
Monitoring of Progress
At the heart of any management meeting agenda should be a review of the plan’s progress. This review should rank with equal status to the approval of the minutes or the financial report. Board members may need to discuss progress in their committees. Staff members should be asked to join the meeting and report the results of their efforts. The monitoring of the process is vital to success.
I never thought that as a student of leadership, I would be quoting the boxer Mike Tyson, but he has been quoted as say, “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.” Although I have heard the same idea expressed by many sources, this is well said and it directly relates to this subject. Many hours were spent in the development of the plan, getting commitment from all involved and beginning the execution. Like a boxer, you step into the ring and you are met with a situation that you hadn’t anticipated, In business. It may have been a change in your market. In the non-profit, it might be a change in regulations of your funding source. It is very rare that you can start a year with a plan and not expect conditions to change or your original assumptions to be incorrect. Remember that no plan is cast in concrete and, when necessary, needs to be modified. This is much of the planning process as all the initial work in its development.