Category Archives: Planning Fundamentals

Planning Principle: It’s Business Planning, Not Accounting

It’s business planning not accounting.  Your projections, although they look like accounting statements, are just projections. They are always going to be off one way or another, and their purpose isn’t guessing the future exactly right, but rather setting down expectations and connecting the links between spending and revenue. Then when you do your monthly reviews, having made the original projection makes adjustments easier.

This is the fifth of five principles of business planning. Others include do only what you use; it’s a process not a plan; it’s for managing change; and it develops accountability.

Planning and accounting are two different dimensions

Accounting goes from today backwards in time in ever-increasing detail. Planning, on the other hand, goes forward into the future in ever-increasing summary and aggregation.

Understanding this difference helps you with the educated guessing involved in making projections. The reports that come out of accounting, called statements, must accurately summarize the actual transactions that happened in the past. For example, a proper and correct Profit and Loss statement in accounting is a report summarizing all the actual transactions recorded as sales, costs, and expenses for a specified period of time (month, quarter, or year).

But projections, unlike financial statements, are just educated guesses. They aren’t reports of a database of actual transactions. Where accounting reports on records in a database, for projections there is no database. We guess what the totals might be. So you don’t try to imagine all the separate transactions in your head, for the future, and then report on them. You estimate the totals. That’s not only easier, but better. It’s a better match to how the projections help you manage, and how we humans deal with numbers.

You estimate and aggregate

So you don’t try to imagine all the separate transactions in your head, for the future, and then report on them. You estimate the totals. That’s not only easier, but better. It’s a better match to how the projections help you manage, and how we humans deal with numbers.

In the example below, the reported sales of $36,945.00 for services in the month of April of 2014 is a database report. Every transaction recorded in that month is included in the database. The number shown is the calculated total of all the transactions that included sales of a service item. It’s not a guess or an estimate. It’s a calculated total. On the other hand, the projected sales of $30,000 for some future month is the business owner’s guess – an educated guess, or an estimate – of what the total will be for that future month. Nobody imagines or guesses all of the individual transactions that will happen in that month in the future, and then totals them. We guess the total. The database report showing $36.950 is accounting. The projected sales of $30,000 is planning.

Planning not Accounting

Planning Principle: Good Business Planning Empowers Accountability

It’s easier to be friends with your coworkers than to manage them well. Every small-business owner suffers the problem of management and accountability. Good business planning empowers accountability.

gears

Good business planning sets clear expectations and then follows up on results. It compares results with expectations. People on a team are held accountable only if management actually does the work of tracking results and communicating them, after the fact, to those responsible.

This is the fourth of my five principles of business planning. The first is do only what you’ll use. The second is that planning is continuous process, not just a plan. The third is that planning helps manage change and is not voided by change.

Good business planning develops metrics

Metrics are part of the problem. As a rule, we don’t develop the right metrics for people. Metrics aren’t right unless the people responsible understand them and believe in them. Will the measurement scheme show good and bad performances?

Remember, people need metrics. People want metrics. You and your business need metrics.

Then you have to track. That’s where the lean business plan creates a management advantage, because tracking and following up is part of its most important pieces. Set the review schedules in advance, make sure you have the right participants for the review, and then do it.

Good business planning develops expectations and feedback

In good teams, the negative feedback is in the metric. Nobody has to scold or lecture, because the team participated in generating the plan and the team reviews it, and good performances make people proud and happy, and bad performances make people embarrassed. It happens automatically. It’s part of the planning process. Besides, guilt and fear tactics are the worst kind of fake management.

And you must avoid the crystal ball and chain. Sometimes — actually, often — metrics go sour because assumptions have changed. Unforeseen events happen. You manage these times collaboratively, separating the effort from the results. Your team members see that and they believe in the process, and they’ll continue to contribute.

Planning Principles: Business Plan in Constant Change

One of the strongest and most pervasive myths about planning is dead wrong: planning doesn’t reduce flexibility. It builds flexibility. Lean business planning manages change. It is not threatened by change.

This is the third of my five main principles of business planning. The first was do only what you’ll use. The second is that planning is continuous process, not just a plan.

Why plan when things change so quickly?

Regarding this third principle, people say, “Why would I do a business plan? That just locks me in. It’s a straitjacket.”

business planning is like dribbling
business planning is like dribbling

And I say: wrong. Never do something just because it’s in the plan. There is no merit whatsoever in sticking to a plan just for the plan’s sake. You never plan to run yourself into a brick wall over and over.

Instead, understand that the plan relates long term to short term, sales to costs and expenses and cash flow, marketing to sales, and lots of other interdependencies in the business. When things change — and they always do — the plan helps you keep track of what affects what else, so you can adjust accordingly.

Change does not undermine planning; actually, planning is the best way to manage change.

So running a business right requires minding the details but also watching the horizon. It’s a matter of keeping eyes up, looking at what’s happening on the field around you; and eyes down, dealing with the ball – both at the same time.

Business planning manages constant change

Which reminds me that dribbling is one of my favorite analogies for business planning. In soccer or basketball, dribbling means managing the hand-eye or foot-eye coordination of the immediate detail while simultaneously looking up and watching opponents and teammates, and developing plays. When I was coaching kids in soccer, I’d try to help them remember to look up and not just down at the ball. The best players did this naturally. Change does not undermine planning; actually, planning is the best way to manage change.

Here are a couple of additional ways dribbling is like planning:

  1. Dribbling is a means to an end—not the goal. Planning is like that too. It’s about results, running a business—not at all about the plan itself. Good planning is measured by the decisions it causes. It’s about managing, allocating resources, and being accountable. I’ve written this in several places: “You measure a business plan by the decisions it causes.” And this: “Good business planning is nine parts execution for every one part strategy.”
  2. Think of the moment when the player gets the ball in the wrong end of the court or field. That’s either a defensive rebound in basketball, or a missed shot on goal in soccer. The tall player gets the basketball and gives it to the one who normally dribbles up court. Or the goalie gets the ball and gives it to a defender. At that moment, in a well-coached team: 1) there is a plan in place  and 2) the player knows the plan but is completely empowered to change it instantly, depending on how the play develops. Business planning done right is very much like that. The existence of a plan—take the ball up the side, pass to the center—helps the team know what ought to happen. But changes— the opponents doing something unexpected—are also foreseen. The game plan doesn’t lock the players in to doing the wrong thing or failing to respond to developments. It helps them make instant choices, changing the plan correctly…and when they do, the other players can guess the next step better because of the plan.

Planning Principle: Continuous Process, Not Just a Plan

Plan Run Review ReviseDon’t think of planning as just a plan that you do once. Planning done right is a process of continuous improvement. Keep your business plan always fresh and current. Never finish a business plan, heave a sigh of relief, and congratulate yourself that you’ll never have to do that again. Don’t use it once and throw it away. You don’t store it in a drawer to gather dust.

This is the second of my give main planning principles. I posted the first a few weeks ago as planning principle: do only what you’ll use.

With good planning process the plan is always up to date

This kind of regularly updated planning is clearly more useful for real business than a more static elaborate business plan. I refer to it as lean planning because with this kind of planning for management, the plan is smaller and streamlined so that you can update it easily and often, at least once a month. Your lean plan is always current, always being tracked and reviewed, frequently revised, and is a valuable tool for managing.

You run your business according to priorities. Your tactics match your strategy. Your specific business activities match your tactics. And accountability is part of the process. People on the team are aware of the performance metrics, milestones, and progress or lack of it. Things get done.

Furthermore, even back in the old days of the elaborate business plan, it was always true that a good business plan was never done. I’ve been pointing that out since the 1980s, in published books, magazine articles, and blog posts. That’s not new with lean business planning. It’s just more important, and more obvious, than ever before.

A business plan is not a single thing.

Don’t think you can find, or buy, a pre-written business plan. You don’t do it and forget it, and you don’t find a business plan or have one written for you. If you work with an expert, consultant, coach, or business plan writer, realize that in real use a business plan lasts only a few weeks before it needs to be reviewed and revised. So your value added from the expert has to help you in the long term. If you don’t know your plan intimately, then you don’t have a plan.

True Story: My Worst-Ever Business Plan Consulting Engagement

In more than 30 years with business planning, my worst-ever business plan consulting engagement was for a startup that should have been funded but wasn’t. It was a good business plan. But the business plan process became the fatal flaw.

A good plan, excellent team, good startup

Unhappy GuyI learned this lesson while sitting in a series of meetings, sitting in venture capital offices at 300 Sand Hill Drive, Menlo Park, CA. That office complex has been the epicenter of venture capital for four decades. It’s a rangy maze of stylish and expensive two-story office complexes. I was the business plan writer for a startup looking for funding. It was a long time ago, in Silicon Valley, in the early 1980s.

The three startup founders formed an excellent startup team. All three were Silicon Valley veterans. One was a marketing guy, another a technical guy, and the third a deal-maker salesman.  They had about 40 years of computer company experience between them. They had a good idea and, much more important, a market window, differentiation, and experience to make it happen.

I had done the plan, built the financial model, written the text, shepherded the document through the painful coil binding and the whole thing, but I wasn’t part of the team. I didn’t want to be. I was still at grad school, getting my MBA, and my part of this venture was writing the plan, period. I needed the money to pay tuition.

My three clients had good connections and managed to get meetings with several leading venture capital (VC) firms in the Sand Hill Drive offices in Menlo Park, just outside of Stanford.  in the heart of Silicon Valley.

But there was a problem with business plan consulting

In meeting after meeting, at key moments, as the venture capital partners asked critical questions, all heads turned to me. I would answer.  I knew the plan, backwards, forwards, and inside out; but I was the only one who did. It was my plan. And the meetings made that obvious.

The three of them never really got into the plan. They thought of the business plan as a hurdle; and they paid me to jump that hurdle. Every meeting generated new changes, so I would go back to the basement computer at the business school, and re-run the financial model. The team of three didn’t include a financial person to learn and manage the model, so I did the financial projections alone, tweaking. Which meant I was the only one who knew the plan. I’d re-run my financial model, edit the text, and publish a new version of the plan. They read paragraphs here and there, glanced at the numbers, but they stayed with the big picture, and left the details to me.

Details that, in fact, they didn’t read. They trusted my faithful recording of their ideas, and my financial modeling. They assumed, I guessed at the time, that these were functions that could always be delegated to somebody with special skills, while they generated high-level strategy.

And time after time, when questions came, I was the only one with answers. It was my plan, not their plan.

They never got funded

They did not get financed. I was disappointed. When you develop the plan and revise it dozens of times and support it and defend it through the long series of meetings with supposedly interested investors, you want it to take flight.

All these years later, memory of that disappointment is still fresh. I did learn my lesson, though, and I changed my strategy as a business plan consultant. From then on I made sure that any plan I worked on belonged — and I’m talking about intellectual ownership here, conceptual ownership — to the real plan owners, not the consultant.

How to work with a business plan consultant

If you have the luxury of a budget to pay an outside expert, consultant, or business plan writer, then maybe you should use them. This might be a good use of division of labor, and perhaps you can lever off somebody else’s experience and expertise. However, that will not work for you unless you always remember that it has to be your plan, not the consultant’s plan. Know everything in it, backwards and forwards, and inside out.

It’s not for nothing that I always say a business plan has to be your plan and nobody else’s. It can’t be your consultant’s plan. You must know it backwards and forwards and inside out, or it won’t work.

(Note: this is rewritten from a post I wrote in 2007)

 

 

 

 

Understand The Essential ‘Why They Buy’

Close your eyes. Step away from the daily routine. Answer the essential ‘why they buy’ questions. Why does anybody buy what you’re selling? What do they get out of it? What need does it fill? Do you offer identifiable benefits? What are they?

Drills vs. holes

Some 30 years ago Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt said: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” That illustrates the ‘why they buy’ that we all need to understand and remember. iStock_000000331264Small

For examplle, one thing I’ve learned from 30-some years in business plan software is that people want the plan, not the software.

It seems obvious but we quickly forget. You think about features, not benefits.

Benefits not features

For example, think about affordable luxuries like the latte at Starbucks, the lobster dinner, the fancy mustard. Starbucks sells a lot more than a cup of coffee, and Gray Poupon mustard is a lot more than just mustard.  iStock_000000370316Small

Look at hamburgers. McDonald’s and Burger King sell fast and easy and reliable. On Saturdays they’re full of parents with kids between soccer games. It’s not a hamburger, it’s a quick solution to a lunch problem. Then there are the gourmet hamburgers. You can pay 4-5 times what the cheapest hamburgers cost. That’s another affordable luxury.

With high-tech products we’re lured into thinking of features, details, bells and whistles. This is okay for a lot of the market. Some of the market, however, doesn’t buy for features but rather status or prestige or peace of mind or some other intangible. iStock_000001206970Small

This kind of thinking is essential for better planning. It helps you build your strategic positioning. Some people buy for price, some for location, some for ease of use, fast delivery, or because their annoying neighbor said they should.

Why do people buy expensive beautifully-packaged sweet-smelling bath soaps? Most of the time they don’t, but imagine it’s February 14. You plan better when you really dig into the buyers’ real motivation.

Whether you’re planning for a start-up or to grow an existing business, start with buyer motivation. Why do they buy from you? What do you do better, or at least different, from your competition? How can you build that difference into strategy?

Video: 5 Fundamental Principles of Business Planning

I’ve been doing business planning professionally since the 1980s. It’s change a lot. These days I very much advocate the lean business plan for managing all businesses, for all business owners, regardless of whether or not you need the full formal traditional business plan used for seeking investment or business loans.  Through the decades, what I recommend for real business planning has changed a lot; but these five fundamental principles of business planning remain constant, from then straight through until today.

This Friday video is an excerpt from the online course I’ve developed for Learning.ly, hosted by The Economist Group. The course itself focuses on lean business planning, not traditional business planning.

For the Lean Business Planning online course on Learning.ly

Five Principles of Business Planning

Do Only What You’ll Use

Lean business means avoiding waste, doing only what has value. Therefore the right form for your business plan is the form that best serves your business purpose. Furthermore, for the vast majority of business owners, the business purpose of planning is getting what you want from the business – setting strategy and tactics, executing, reviewing results, and revising as needed. And that purpose is best served with lean planning that starts with a lean plan and continues with a planning process involving regular review and revision. You keep it lean because that’s easier, better, and really all you’re going to use.

It’s a Continuous Process, not Just a Plan

With lean planning, your business plan is always a fresh, current version. You never finish a business plan, heave a sigh of relief, and congratulate yourself that you’ll never have to do that again. You don’t use it once and throw it away. You don’t store it in a drawer to gather dust.The PRRR cycle in lean business planning

However, this kind of regularly updated planning is clearly better for business than a more static elaborate business plan. With lean planning, the plan is smaller and streamlined so you can update it easily and often, at least once a month. Your lean plan is much more useful than a static plan because it is always current, always being tracked and reviewed, frequently revised, and is a valuable tool for managing. You run your business according to priorities. Your tactics match your strategy. Your specific business activities match your tactics. And accountability is part of the process. People on the team are aware of the performance metrics, milestones, and progress or lack of it. Things get done.

Furthermore, even back in the old days of the elaborate business plan, it was always true that a good business plan was never done. I’ve been pointing that out since the 1980s, in published books, magazine articles, and blog posts. That’s not new with lean business planning. It’s just more important, and more obvious, than ever before.

It Assumes Constant Change

One of the strongest and most pervasive myths about planning is dead wrong: planning doesn’t reduce flexibility. It builds flexibility. Lean business planning manages change. It is not threatened by change.

People say, “Why would I do a business plan? That just locks me in. It’s a straitjacket.”

And I say: wrong. Never do something just because it’s in the plan. There is no merit whatsoever in sticking to a plan just for the plan’s sake. You never plan to run yourself into a brick wall over and over.

Instead, understand that the plan relates long term to short term, sales to costs and expenses and cash flow, marketing to sales, and lots of other interdependencies in the business. When things change — and they always do — the plan helps you keep track of what affects what else, so you can adjust accordingly.

It Empowers Accountability

It is easier to be friends with your coworkers than to manage them well. Every small-business owner suffers the problem of management and accountability.

Lean business planning sets clear expectations and then follows up on results. It compares results with expectations. People on a team are held accountable only if management actually does the work of tracking results and communicating them, after the fact, to those responsible.

It’s Planning, Not Accounting

One of the most common errors in business planning is confusing planning with accounting. This is true for lean planning too. Your projections, although they look like accounting statements, are just projections. They are always going to be off one way or another, and their purpose isn’t guessing the future exactly right, but rather setting down expectations and connecting the links between spending and revenue. Then when you do your monthly reviews, having made the original projection makes adjustments easier.

They are two different dimensions.

Accounting goes from today backwards in time in ever-increasing detail. Planning, on the other hand, goes forward into the future in ever-increasing summary and aggregation.

On Lean Business Planning

All five of these principles apply to all business planning, not just lean business planning. However, it’s important to note that lean business planning emphasizes all five. It’s a reflection of the best in business planning.

 

 

Planning and Paradox

Business planning is full of paradox. It’s a matter of balance. Here are some interesting examples.

  • Business plans are always wrong, but nonetheless vital. Wrong because they’re predicting the future and we’re human, we’re fallible, so we don’t get it right. Vital because we need the plan in order to track where, how, and what direction it was wrong, which becomes planning process, which becomes management. I deal with this a lot.
  • You have to focus to survive, but you need new markets to grow. So which is it? Have you heard of the corridor principal? It says business strategy is like walking down a long corridor full of doors. Open every door to investigate and you never get anywhere. Ignore all the doors to just keep going and you never get any new opportunities.
  • I’ve written before: “it’s better to have a mediocre strategy consistently applied over three or more years than a series of brilliant strategies, each applied for six months or so.” So do you stick to the plan regardless, like running into a brick wall? Or do you revise? When do you revise? How do you know? There’s paradox, where the human judgment comes in to override the formulaic.

The solution to that paradox is the frequent plan vs. actual review, tracking results and assumptions, to put changing the plan into a real context. Set the plan, review it, and revise it, frequently, based on needs. It’s still a tough decision, at times, because of the consistency vs. pivot problem; but keeping on top of it makes it easier. For more on that, check out Lean Business Plan as Business Dashboard and GPS.

(Image: shutterstock.com)

Business Plan Software Then and Now

I was shocked, over the weekend, to discover that it’s been more than 10 years since I posted The Future of Business Planning Software here on this blog. I wrote then:

As time goes on, more people are going to use planning as process to manage their businesses better. More will see the power of regular plan review, regular plan-vs.-actual analysis, regular milestones management, and using it all to manage teams and priorities. As this happens it will improve the quality of business planning software as well as of business planning. We’ll all start to look at built-in plan-vs.-actual analysis, regular plan reviews, and software that makes that happen.

Future of Business Planning 2006Okay, so I’m an optimist. Instead of what I predicted (yeah, rose-colored glasses, I suppose), business planning is still, 10 years later, obscured by myth and misunderstanding. Experts who should know better are still advising people against business planning when what they mean is the wrong kind of business planning, the use-once-and-throw-away formal business plan full of painfully-perfected summaries and descriptions.

And what I said would happen was, definitely, what should have happened; and what should happen still. Better late than never. These things seem self evident to me:

  1. All business owners and startups have enormous benefits to gain from proper planning. Lately I’ve been writing about it as lean business planning, but it’s basically still today what has been fundamentally good planning for all of my lifetime. Short, concrete, specific, trackable, used for regular review and revision, part of a process that is heavy on plan vs. actual analysis.
  2. The ideal business plan, today, is smaller and more concentrated than the formal business plan we did in the Silicon Valley heydays of the 1980s. It’s a lot more lean.
  3. If those experts who say don’t do a business plan would say don’t do an old-fashioned formal complete business plan, just a lean plan, then they’d be right.
  4. Apply the general business rule of form follows function to business planning. Do only what you need. Do only what you’ll use. For business owners, you rarely a real business reason to do a full formal plan, but having a lean plan is golden, as long as you track it and use it to steer the business. Sometimes a bank will require a business plan, but usually a lean plan is good enough for that use too. Startups may need a business plan for investors who want to do due diligence on them before investing; that may or may not require more than a lean plan.

My most recent post on this, in the blog, is The Lean Business Plan as Dashboard and GPS. And there’s a category here called Lean Business Plan.

Will businesses finally pick up on this idea? I hope so. If you want to improve management and steer your business better, the right kind of business planning develops focus, priorities, accountability, and execution. And business plan software is going there already.

In regards to software, I’m happy to report that Palo Alto Software has made my 2006 predictions self-fulfilling prophecy. LivePlan connects to your QuickBooks or Xero accounting software and does plan vs. actual analysis automatically; plus this year vs. last year too.

Business Planning is not Accounting

Stargateverysmall_1 The picture here represents the legendary Stargate, a science fictional gateway between two dimensions. There was a 1994 film starring James Spader and Kurt Russell.

I often use it to illustrate the difference between business planning and accounting. Business planning begins today and goes forward into the future. Accounting ends today and goes backward into the past. Planning is for making decisions, setting priorities, and management. Accounting is also for information and management, of course, but there are legal obligations related to taxes. Accounting must necessarily go very deep into detail. Planning requires a balance between detail and concept, because there are times when too much detail is not productive.

The catch that causes many misunderstandings is that the statements look very similar.  Your accounting system produces an Income statement (alias Profit or Loss), a Balance Sheet, and a Cash Flow statement.  A good business plan has at least the same three statements as “pro-forma” (meaning projected) statements. The form, presentation, and order of appearance of these financial statements are almost identical, but their information content is quite different.

Accounting should zoom into ever-increasing detail.  Business planning should summarize and aggregate.

Accounting can never be wrong.  Business plans are always wrong (not that they aren’t useful — it’s like walking or steering, the value is in the correction and the management of where and why they’re wrong, but that’s a different post.)