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Strategic Planning for a Small Business – How to Overcome the Challenges

You spend the day scrambling. But how do you know you are on the right path? Are you leveraging the strengths, interests and talents on your team? Will you wind up in a place that will make you happy? It is not that you haven’t been thinking about these questions. The business environment is complex and the choices are daunting. How do you answer the hard questions?

A planning process can help to sharpen a vision, evaluate alternative paths, build common understanding and commitment, balance dreams with reality, and transform uncertainty into action. But most small business owners don’t plan! The reasons why are varied but some of the common themes include: “It’s not the best use of my/our limited time”, “planning takes away flexibility”, “there are too many uncertainties”, “we have a business plan”, “building consensus is too difficult”, and “it will cost too much”.

These are all real concerns. The dichotomy is that the very reasons why organizations avoid planning are the same reasons that planning can be so effective. Let’s take a look….

TIME– “We are so overwhelmed – hiring, making sure our customers are happy, getting new products out – we just don’t have time to think about next week, forget about next year. Somehow, the future will just have to take care of itself.”
Thinking versus action provides a dilemma for many professionals. We are action oriented. When we are doing something, we feel productive. When we take the time to think, we feel unproductive. We need to do both. Without investing the time and effort to think about where we’re headed, it is likely we won’t get there.

When we become so involved in the day to day that we risk losing perspective, it is time to step back. If we stay mired in the trenches, the easiest solution is often implemented, not the best one. Planning takes time, but it leads to a focused use of the limited time available.

FLEXIBILITY– “We like to stay open to opportunities as they arise.”

Creating a strategic plan doesn’t mean that your business can’t be flexible. A plan sets the foundation so that when things start changing; there is a baseline from which to evaluate new opportunities.

Out of strategic planning come decisions like: “we will approach this target market, not that one”, “we will offer these products or services, not those”, “we will accomplish this objective before anything else.” Written plans demonstrate that careful consideration has been given to the future. It is easier to make these kinds of decisions strategically with a longer-term view. When things get stressful, it becomes difficult to see all of the options well enough to make educated decisions.

“We have a basic idea of where we are headed, why write it down?”

Unwritten goals are simply thoughts that will change as often as your opinions change. The act of writing out goals helps to clarify them and can provide an objective way of tracking them against actual results. Magic happens when you put goals on paper, they start to become real. You begin to make commitments, and are open to opportunities you may not have noticed before.

UNCERTAINTY– “Strategic planning is a business school concept developed when people thought they could anticipate and predict the future. How can we plan in a world that is highly uncertain?”

Uncertainty is a real issue in forward planning. However, putting our heads in the sand probably isn’t the best solution. Most organizations have their strategies, structure, and service offering challenged on a regular basis. To remain successful it is vital to ask the following strategic questions on a regular basis:  Where are we now? Where are we going? How are we going to get there?

Strategic planning helps a business evaluate market opportunities. To do this effectively, the process includes collecting and analyzing information about the business environment, understanding internal strengths, and developing a set of ‘key assumptions’. As the environment changes, so should our plans.

I HAVE A PLAN– “I wrote a business plan when I started the business”

The act of strategic planning is often confused with a business plan. Business plans are usually drafted to obtain financing, and then wind up filed away. The strategic planning process is an activity that is conducted every few years to evaluate opportunities, wrestle with environmental changes, build consensus, and to create updated goals.

ORGANIZATION DYNAMICS– “I could never get everyone to agree on the best way to move forward. Anyway, shouldn’t it be my vision?”

An effective planning process will help to get people talking, and ensure that the business owner/CEO benefits from the ideas of his/her team. A good process is designed to build confidence, support and commitment among all involved. Even if only a limited group is included in the process, the completion of a strategic plan provides a great opportunity to communicate the company’s direction and core values to employees.

The use of an outside facilitator can greatly enhance the effectiveness of a planning process and keep the process on track. There is often a strong tendency of those participating to focus the discussions on today’s problems. An outside facilitator can help to broaden thinking and make sure that new ideas and directions are generated.

COST- “We don’t have a budget for planning.”

With all the activities that make up running a business, setting priorities in the context of a plan is important. Without a plan, the limited resources of a growing business will tend to be scattered in many directions, netting results that take longer and cost more.

What are your personal priorities? Is profitability, work/life balance, a motivated staff, or public recognition on your list? What are the personal benefits of achieving your goals? What are the consequences if you don’t?

If you are serious about your business, it is time to overcome the challenges to planning. Don’t hesitate to enlist help. Stop thinking about a better future, get climbing in the right direction!

by Helene Mazur

Helene is the founder of Princeton Performance Dynamics, an executive coaching and strategic planning facilitation company for business and non-profit leaders and their teams. Helene’s passion is helping her clients to apply more of their potential, focus their goals, see new perspectives on their situation, put in place exciting, realistic plans, overcome the challenges, and execute to achieve new levels of success.