A Plan With Sincerity

For experienced business people, the topic "How to write a business plan" can lead to excessive yawning.  Articles on the subject are often uninspiring, formulaic, elementary and textbook-ish.  Also, I'll have the dry toast, thanks.

But we never leave behind the need for business plans.  They're not just for startups ("we're going to disrupt the sock industry!").  Every business that is pursuing a distinct opportunity needs a plan.  And it doesn't have to be boring.  In fact, a good plan is compelling because it shows us an invigorating path with the right balance of assumptions and unknowns.  You could even call a plan that strikes the right balance a map for adventure.

A trumped up mission statement is not adequate to the task.  We can't know if it's a realistic plan, and we can't evaluate the risk/reward.  That's too adventurous for a business that has to make payroll.

At the other end of the spectrum, we sometimes try for blueprint-esque plans, with every shrub and all electrical conduit laid out with precision.  But they're usually a waste of time, and an exercise in self-deception.  No one knows blueprint-level detail in the business planning stage.   And when we start with a faux blueprint, we can be too rigid in the journey ("my blueprint says...") when we really need to adapt to new information and situations along the way. 

A useful plan answers five basic questions:

  • Where are we?
  • Where are we going?
  • Why does it matter?
  • How will we get there?
  • What is the general context for the path (risks, threats, milestones)?

All are important, but the third question (Why does it matter?) is the litmus test for the sincerity of the plan.  It's the difference between plans that produce and plans that peter out.

There are just two fundamental reasons for a business plan (for embarking on that kind of adventure):

We're vulnerable.

We're dissatisfied.

If we don't really believe that this plan addresses a critical vulnerability, or reduces a key dissatisfaction, we won't do much with it.  We may create a snazzy presentation, with intriguing graphics and just the right font.  We may spend hours on pro forma estimates.  But when the dust settles, we'll find ourselves back on the same old path.  The plan lies unused because we don't really believe in it.

Find the compelling reason to bother in the first place, and you'll find the ideas and momentum to act.