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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graf

What does PLANNING look like for a Small & Medium Business?

Updated: May 31, 2023

People laughing in a planning meeting

Planning. It’s a word we hear a lot in business. But how important is it? We plan lots of things - birthday parties, vacations, meals, expenses to name a few. I guess life has a way of requiring it to some degree. Often, we obsess over planning so much that those who don’t plan ahead literally drive us crazy.

So why do so many SMBs struggle with planning and what does it really mean anyway? I mean big companies do planning right, but SMBs are too busy to slow down to allocate time for something such as… planning!?

What’s the difference between annual planning, strategic planning and financial planning and is there a method or model to separate right from wrong? These are all relevant and fair questions that clients have raised. I’ve observed companies forecast 12 quarters of revenue and profits on a spreadsheet and claim they’ve completed a planning exercise. I’ve also participated in a full day of brainstorming and placing colored post-it notes all over the conference room- this, too was deemed as planning. And lastly, I’ve witnessed companies laying out precisely what each department and each person is responsible to deliver… and this was their planning exercise. None of these are wrong. In fact, all 3 of these approaches are good. Incomplete! But still a step in the right direction. I applaud their efforts. We’ve seen planning done via ultra expensive executive trips to a European chateau and also experienced the 4 hour bring-your-own-lunch meeting in a conference room where literally everything is beige.

I’m sure you’ve got your own stories and ideas about planning. So, what is a small or medium business to do? Good planning is fundamentally about marriage and alignment. Good planning involves the thoughtful marriage of 5 key elements- Goals, People, Priorities, Actions and Outputs. It also involves a certain degree of alignment across company leaders. First, let’s tackle the marriage aspect. Even as a small business, say $70M or as a medium business, say $200M, companies are complex and interdependent organisms. They operate, succeed and fail as multi-dimensional living, breathing structures… so these 5 aspects must be connected.

Goals: What are we trying to achieve? Where do we want to be in 2years? 3 years? What is an aspirational, but not too aggressive revenue target? Customer Target? NPS Target?

Priorities: A priority is NOT a dollar target. Priorities are initiatives, efforts, workstreams, enablers… things that must occur in order to drive growth or build a better culture or break down customer acquisition barriers. I like to see 4-7 priorities for a given year but there is no right or wrong number. Three is fine. Ten is ok too. Just know that your priorities are the levers to make your goals a reality, so try to limit the number such that each one can be given adequate monitoring, inspection, care & feeding.

People: Who’s going to lead each priority? Assign general areas of ownership and responsibility for each department and each person. What are our staffing and development needs?

Actions: This is a bit more tactical and optimally a set of actions would sit beneath each Priority. Obviously, these are verbs and outline things that departments or individuals will do by a given date and will include specific metrics so its easy to know what success looks like. There is no room for vagueness here.

Outputs: The output aspect is a go-forward mechanism (review, tool, submission) that creates traction, momentum, accountability and communicates that the planning process was important enough to deserve ongoing attention (ie, it communicates this was NOT just an exciting 3 days of dreaming and hopecasting with zero follow through). If you are a leader, please remember that inspection, accountability and tracking progress show your team that you care and that you’re here to help. If your team equates accountability to being thrown under the bus, you have some major culture work to do!

And now, let’s not forget the alignment element. Alignment does not mean 100% agreement on every detail. Alignment means that the key leaders understand the goals, priorities and actions and are committed to seeing them through. That’s why good planning work is done in a collaborative environment with engagement, interaction and discussion as opposed to siloed communication. And now more than ever its important for teams to see their leaders aligned, on the same page and collaborating.

In closing, good planning is hard work, but if done well it will change the future of your business and pay dividends for years to come. So make it a habit, not just a scheduled event.

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