People often ask me how to start a business plan. Sometimes I’ll say it depends on you, your preference, and your style, so some people do a sales forecast first, some do a vision statement. But the right answer is that you start by scheduling your monthly review and revise meeting. That’s by far the most important first step. For everybody.
Each year, as you get ready to publish the next year’s plan, schedule the plan review meetings. Use some regular meeting schedule such as the third or fourth Thursday of every month. All the managers committed to the plan will know way ahead of time so there are few reasons to miss a meeting.
Some excuses will come up. There will be events like trade shows or client events that some managers have to attend. However, with a preplanned schedule for review meetings, these problems won’t happen that often.
If your planning process includes a good plan — with specific responsibilities assigned, managers committed, budgets, dates, and measurability — then the review meetings become easier to manage and easier to attend. The agenda of each meeting should be predetermined by the milestones coming due soon, and milestones recently due. Managers review and discuss plan vs. actual results, explain and analyze the differences.
At Palo Alto Software, we review coordinated milestones once a week, Tuesday mornings, in about 20 minutes. The monthly plan vs. actual review includes financial results and other measurables — product milestones, support calls, sales events, etc. — and takes just two hours a month.
It doesn’t take that much time, but there is very little in management more valuable. It makes your plan a planning process.
[Note: this is a special post placed here as part of Pamela Slim’s Escape Community. It was modified from a post that originally appeared here.]
It is time to adapt a new kind of business planning, which I want to call “plan-as-you-go” business planning. It leaves the formal plan document for the special cases that really need it, while focusing for the rest of us on the real power of planning, meaning management and tracking and accountability, and easing up on the form to make sure that form follows function. For convenience, let’s call it PAYG. The plan-as-you-go business plan is PAYG planning.
What’s Different About It?
How is the PAYG plan different from the standard business plan? Good question. Let’s get into some specifics:
1. It’s a process, not just a plan. Every PAYG plan has a review schedule built in, from the beginning. It sets the dates and participants in the future review meetings, taking 60-90 minutes once a month and 2-3 hours once per quarter. and PAYG planning is about process: not just the plan, but the regular review and management of the plan.
2. Form follows function. The PAYG plan is not necessarily the same kind of formal business plan document you did in business school or read about all over. It doesn’t necessarily follow a recipe. Every PAYG plan is unique. It might generate a formal document at some point, or over and over again actually at different points in company history, but until you need the formal plan document to show somebody it lives on your computer. You pull from the plan to make a pitch presentation or elevator speech or summary memo or full detailed business plan document, as required for business purpose. It’s the source of all of these, the key thinking including strategy and metrics and dates and deadlines, without having a specifically defined form.
3. It assumes and manages change. The PAYG plan is about navigation, not just a static map. It assumes that assumptions will change. That’s why it builds the review schedule into it, and in keeping with that idea, assumptions must always be visible, on top, where they can be reviewed. Unlike the misunderstood formal business plan, the PAYG plan is a way to keep your view of the long term goals and directions while also managing the short-term surprises.
Now I recognize that you could read this list and say “but that’s the same as good planning has been for years, it’s not so new and different.” And I’d say “that’s right, you’re getting it.” What’s most important about PAYG planning is that people in the real world, startups and growing companies alike, can actually use it. It gets people out of the silly talk about how a business plan isn’t useful because they misunderstand how a business plan is supposed to be used.
4. Accountability. Plan-as-you-go planning develops accountability in the process, as a matter of metrics, and tracking. It is important that accountability be a matter of collaboration, and not the crystal ball and chain.
1. Start with the review schedule. If you don’t have a plan review schedule, you don’t have PAYG planning. You might have a plan, but it’s not PAYG planning. Set the dates from the very beginning. As you develop the plan, you keep the people involved aware of the touch points, when and how and who you’re going to track.
2. Develop useful metrics. PAYG planning is about actually managing, not just planning into thin air. The main metrics are money, and the most important is cash flow, but look for metrics that involve the team. Calls, presentations, visitors, inquiries, average time of calls, downloads, whatever. Ideally, everybody on the team deserves metrics.
3. Identify the assumptions. Effective PAYG planning keeps the assumptions on top, where you can revisit them with every review meeting. We assume things change and the planning is about navigation, not just a static map. This is how you keep your plan alive and active.
4. Every plan has a heart and flesh and bones. The heart is strategy, market need, differentiation, and focus. This is as true with PAYG planning as with traditional plans. The flesh and bones are just as important, and in PAYG planning that’s metrics, milestones, tasks, dates, deadlines, and responsibility assignments, and, most important, cash flow planning.
Important Principles of PAYG Planning
1. Start anywhere. Get going. The plan is a matter of interlocking blocks, so some people start with a numbers task, like a sales forecast, and others start conceptually, with a vision or a strategy or focus. Just get started. Don’t wait until your plan is finished, get going. Start today and start using it tomorrow.
2. All business plans are wrong – but still vital. It’s a matter of humanity, you are predicting the future, you’ll be wrong, but you set down tracks so you can follow up and revise without losing sight of the long-term goals and directions.
3. Good business plans are never done. My company’s business plan started in the late 1980s and it’s still a work in progress. If your plan is finished, your company is finished. Instead, you revise as needed, as in steering, navigation, and walking. The core of the plan is the collection of heart and flesh and bones, it’s content, thinking, and specifics; from that you spin out a document or presentation or elevator speech as needed, and when needed.
4. Form follows function. Do only as much as you need to run your company, to manage, to build strategy and follow-up and long-term goals and directions. If you don’t need to create a formal plan, don’t; keep it on your computer.
5. Keep it alive, always, and spin the output as needed. Don’t ever let your plan go static. Keep it on top of things, active, and alive, not forgotten in a drawer.
6. Planning is worth the implementation it causes. You measure a plan by results. It’s as good as the decisions it guides.