Regardless of whether you develop a full-blown "business plan," you certainly want to plan your business. Planning isn't just about creating a formalized document; it's about figuring out how you'll achieve your goals and tracking progress. A planning process--setting objectives, prioritizing, allocating resources and establishing milestones--will help you better manage your business.
What's important is to get going. Don't let the planning hold you back, but do let the planning hold you steady and help you manage. There are several good ways to do that, including a SWOT analysis, evaluating your market, developing your organizational identity or simply forecasting sales. The best way to start depends on you: who you are, who you're working with and what your objectives are, among other factors. Some people work better with numbers first, while others prefer dealing with concepts.
With that in mind, I want to focus on the SWOT analysis--evaluating strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats--as one good way to start thinking strategically. It's a natural brainstorming tool that everyone understands and works well for groups. I've used it with my company since the beginning when it was just me and still use it now that my company has 35 employees.
Here's a good visual example of a SWOT analysis taken from a computer reseller's plan. The company conducted the analysis in a medium-sized university town a few years ago as major office stores came into the market pushing computers as lower-priced boxed goods that didn't need service or support.
As you perform a SWOT analysis, try to involve other people; it improves the brainstorming value. Even if you're running a one-person business, invite your spouse or significant other, a trusted friend who knows your business, and--if you can afford the hourly fees--your accountant or attorney. If you're in a small business with a team, invite the team.
Brainstorming means generating a lot of ideas, not just good ideas, and then editing them down to a concentrated strategic list. Include plenty of bullet points. Make sure that during the brainstorming period you aren't negative about or critical of any ideas.
To clarify, strengths and weaknesses are about you and your company, its nature, history, and what it does and doesn't do well. You can change them over time, but it isn't easy. Threats and opportunities are external-- factors outside of your business. Your strategy should play on your strengths and away from weaknesses to take advantage of opportunities and avoid threats.
One of the great advantages of SWOT is how easily it brings people into the process. Companies differ, but in general, your planning will work better if the people who are supposed to implement the plan are involved in its development. SWOT involves people in the plan, helping them see the strategy and making them feel like part of it.
SWOT in a small business also offers a safe forum for generating new ideas and breaking through standing assumptions. For example, it was in a SWOT meeting that the product development director of my company, who was in his late twenties at the time, suggested that one of my company's weaknesses was my messing with the software code instead of just being the president. He pointed out that we had professional software developers to do that. It might have been awkward for him to say that to the president and founder, but it was easier during the SWOT meeting. And in this case, it had a good outcome: He's been promoted several times since then, and I stay out of the software programming.
For more information on the SWOT process, check out these helpful links: Wikipedia, bplans.com and MindTools.