The Future of the Business Plan
When things get rocky, what will keep you on point and on mission? What can you refer to, ensuring you aren't straying from your original vision? The right business plan can go a long way.
Business plans are a lot like maps and GPSes. If the organisational journey is proceeding smoothly, you may believe you don't need one. Indeed, there's a school of thought — backed by certain research — that says starting out with a formal plan is no predictor of success and it's better to get out there and test your concept in a real-world environment.
These naysayers argue that most business plans are theoretical, unrealistic and go out the window the first time the entrepreneur encounters an unforeseen hurdle.
Refer to the original vision
But the pro-business plan lobby argues that, when market conditions unexpectedly change and you're thrown into disarray, it's important to refer to the original vision and belief system that you started out with. These will help to keep you grounded and avoid going off at tangents every time you hit an obstacle.
A plan also helps to prioritise your daily activities. Without it, everything becomes urgent and the resulting chaos will destroy your work/life balance and leave you feeling overwhelmed. If you are more than a one-person operation, a business plan enables company teams to align their activities to the overall vision and to work congruently to achieve the same goals.
William B. Gartner, an entrepreneurship professor at Clemson University in the US, believes business plans are essential.
After analysing data from a survey of more than 800 people starting businesses, he found that writing a plan greatly increased the chances of actually going into business.
"You're two-and-a-half times more likely to get into business," he observes. "That's powerful." Alyssa Gregory, an entrepreneur and writer for the likes of Forbes and the New York Times, says the process of putting together a business plan can help with new ideas, different approaches and fresh perspectives.
"An effective business plan is a flexible, growing and dynamic tool that can help you think creatively and come up with new solutions for some of your toughest business challenges," she says.
Keep the plan simple
However, the thinking around the required depth and complexity of a business plan has changed. A decade or two ago, management gurus advocated elaborate 40-page plans with detailed sections covering objectives, mission, organisational structure, target market, customer behaviour, competitive advantage, marketing strategy, sales forecasts and financial projections.
These days, unless you're seeking outside investors or looking for a bank loan that requires a detailed risk analysis, the move is towards shorter and simpler documents of no more than a page.
The reasons for this change are many. A lengthy document is likely to be unread — particularly by younger-generation employees with short attention spans. Even if it is read, it's unlikely to be remembered in detail because of its complexity.
So, opt for a one-page business plan that's easily digestible and lists only the important things like mission, vision, etc. Cut the fluff and keep the essence. If you've spent time preparing a longer plan, that's okay. Turn the key elements that will keep you focused on your goals and the bigger picture into short bullet points that will become your go-to business plan for regular use.
What should be in your one-pager? South Africa-based digital marketing and content strategist, Casandra Visser, suggests:
- Vision - What are you building
- Mission Statement - What you do, what your product/service is and who your customers are
- Objectives - Your business goals for the next week, month or year
- Strategies - How you plan to achieve your objectives
- Action Plan - Steps you will take to action your strategies, including dates/deadlines.
Finally, remember that your plan is a living, breathing document that needs to be meaningful in a constantly changing business environment. So, break up your annual plan into quarterly plans that take into account micro and macro changes in your specific operating environment. Keep it relevant, keep it simple — and your business plan will be an invaluable asset in navigating your business journey.