Yes, it is true that plans are stories and stories drive plans, but that’s not stories as visions of the future and plans as managing and steering to make those visions true; we’re not talking about fairy tales. Make your planning real. Make it help your business. Make it help you control your destiny and manage better.
I believe in the just-big-enough business plan, where form follows function, and you plan as you go. Don’t include what you don’t need. For example, if you don’t have business reasons to describe your company and your management team to outsiders, then don’t bother with those descriptions as part of your plan. Don’t write to yourself what you already know and won’t use.
With that in mind, there are some things that should be in every business plan, no matter what.
1. The review schedule.
If you don’t take an hour or two to review the actual results and compare them to the plan, then you’re not really planning your business. You’ve let it become a one-time exercise, to create a document, instead of planning as steering and managing your company. Set aside a regular time – in my company it’s been the third Thursday or the month for years – to review the plan. If you don’t add this into the planning from the beginning, people will be tempted to think of it as a one-time document. That was a fairy tale.
2. The sales forecast.
It’s hard not to write the cash flow here, because cash isn’t profits, and cash is the single most important resource in business. But what I’ve found is that while business-to-business and product-driven businesses desperately need to project cash flow in advance (because of not getting paid in cash, and having to generate inventory), all businesses need to project sales because the plan vs. actual impact of sales is the key to ongoing management in changing times. Your costs and expenses pivot on sales.
Yes, you should have cash flow; but in the day to day, the sales levels drive management activity. But only if you have that regular review.
3. Concrete specific steps, milestones, and lookout points.
Blue-sky strategy is nice, it can be an invigorating intellectual exercise, but the measurable specifics are what drives business management. Every element of the business plan should have some way to see later whether or not it’s been implemented.
Go from vision and strategy to the steps to make it happen. What will it take?
From there, you develop milestones: dates, deadlines, and budgets, always with specific responsibility assignments. You want something you can track later so you can have the benefit of management of plan vs. actual results. Did things happen on time? Why, or why not?
And when I say lookout points, I mean things to watch, built into the plan, to alert you to progress, or lack of it. For example, did the site get released, and if so, is the traffic coming as projected? Did the restaurant open, and are we getting the business we’d hoped for? Plan for those key moments when you look for metrics to see whether or not you need to change assumptions. It’s like those stairway landings, halfway up the stairs, that you can use to put the box you’re carrying down and reassess.