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The Business of Planning

I spent the better part of the last half of summer engaged in military training at a major training event for our brigade. Suffice it to say that things were a little more "tactical" than "business" for me for a while. In that world, I was recently promoted to Battalion Plans Officer, which is a natural step in an officers’ career path, but something you don’t really know a lot about until you get there. So, I got there and guess what plans officers do? They plan. A lot. Go figure. And when they get done with initial planning, they proof the plan, submit the plan, receive a corrected plan, revise the plan, and publish the plan – all in time to either publish the next version of the plan with ever-updating details or start a new one for a different mission. It is a constant cycle of planning which only ends when actual execution of that particular plan prevents the possibility of perfecting the plan any further. As my training came to an end and I processed my initial baptism into the world of military operational planning, I began to really appreciate the process of planning as the primary value of any plan. As General Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.”

Planning is something we all do – either well or poorly – and is as crucial to our success as business owners as it is to any military operation. There are business owners who show up and operate every day without ever taking the time to stop and seriously consider what they want to accomplish (besides “making money”, of course) and where their business is heading. They work hard but to what end? Without taking the time to create and regularly revise your plan your effort is often either inefficient or wasted, whether it is your strategic plan for the next 10 years or what goals you need to achieve this quarter. None of us wants to find ourselves in the same place a year from now that we are today. The only way we can avoid that fate is by developing our ability to create and execute well-designed plans.

Still not convinced it will be worth the effort? Here are five reasons your time invested in a consistent cycle of planning and evaluation for your organization is time well spent.

1. Planning is the best you can do at gaining any level of control over your future.

None of us can control the future. Yet we still spend an inordinate amount of time trying to increase our control over as many variables as we can. We collect data, create spreadsheets, and call meetings, all in attempt to do whatever we can to produce favorable results in the next month/quarter/year. The planning process, when it is done well, can give you a

framework for all of this predictive analysis. Granted, the plans often break down when confronted with the variables of reality, but it gives you a solid foundation into an uncertain

future. Without a plan, we are in a completely reactive posture to everything going on around us – our customers, our competitors, and our market. On the other hand, a well-developed plan is a guide – a north star – that can keep you moving in the right direction, even if the way you actually get there deviates a little more than you had anticipated.

2. Planning allows you to adapt quickly and intelligently because you intimately understand the details.

The work involved in creating, revising, and finalizing a comprehensive plan will help to make everyone involved very familiar with the details of the plan. A plan is really the coordination of individual tasks in time and space. As the details are worked and re-worked, the participants gain deep understanding of the essential elements of the plan. This base of deep understanding creates positive flexibility to the realities of execution in real-time, even if these realities don’t conform to the predictions that the plan was built on.

For instance, let’s say a home-builder creates a plan to penetrate a market in a new city. He builds a plan to accomplish this by studying the local housing market, material costs, labor costs, and the best realtors. He even targets the exact lots he wants to buy. The day he goes to inquire about purchasing the lots he finds out they were just sold. Is the plan worthless? No. Why? Because he took the time to learn the local market, he knows that most of the variables will stay the same and, due to his research of the housing market, he can move to another location that will give him the profit margins he needs. The value of planning in this case was derived from the process itself where he learned the details of his plan so well he could adjust to new realities in real time and still achieve his desired end-state.

3. Planning allows for coordination of effort.

Planning allows for multiple people to combine their efforts toward a shared goal. A plan is the common language of everyone in the room. Without a plan, everyone may not have the same goal in mind and, even if they do, chances are, they all have different ideas of how to get there. A well-developed plan helps everyone know what needs to be done, where they fit in, and where to best direct their efforts. Even if the plan changes in response to real-time feedback, it changes with everyone together. Those involved stay on the same page because everyone develops the plan. The planning process is worth it if even just to keep everyone moving in the same direction.

4. Planning helps you to build coalitions of support and allocate resources.

There is a reason that banks require business plans before they will lend you money. Is it because they think you have created a bulletproof way to execute your business idea exactly as written? Hardly. It is because a written plan helps them to see how much thought you have put into your idea and how much understanding you have about running a business in your desired context. Banks can’t tell the future either so they have to look for other ways to mitigate the risk they assume in loaning you money. Your ability to produce an articulate, comprehensive plan around your great idea can help win their support by proving to them that you are the one to pull this idea off. In addition, this same ability to communicate your business strategy can help you secure resources beyond just financial resources including key allies, business partners, and even the best talent.

5. Planning leverages the best that everyone has to offer.

The planning process is self-refining by aggregating the best ideas from everyone involved. Regardless of one person’s experience or level of expertise, their perspective is inherently limited because it is only their perspective. The planning process helps build a shared perspective on how to accomplish something that is the product of the best ideas of multiple experiences and various kinds of expertise. And just like with our friendly banker, good plans – the ones that you can tell are well thought-out and seem likely to succeed – are inherently motivating for all involved.

Time is an extremely limited resource for all of us and there are a dozens of tasks that seem more important. But the time invested in a regular cycle of planning and evaluation for the future of your business is critical to maximizing the potential of your organization.

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