Why You Should Never Create a Business or Strategic Plan Again

It’s an all too familiar situation. A retreat or intensive discussion with your team, board, advisors and more evolves to a 20+ page deck or document. Ideally, it’s a roadmap for the next three to five or so years of your organization. 

In reality though? 

Within months, it more often than not becomes obsolete. 

Both strategic and business plans are often built on more on aspiration and inspiration than information.

While it’s amazing to think big and think creatively as a social entrepreneur, creative thinking isn’t strategic without . . .a strategy. 

The strategy needs to be responsive. It needs to be agile. So for a long term plan to fulfill your organizational goals (which I suspect involve some combination of increased revenue and increased impact – because that’s the case with each of my clients) there needs to be less of “here’s what we’re going to do” and a lot more “here’s where we think we want to be and why, here’s how we think we can get there, and here’s how we’re going to know if we’re on or off track.” 

I break down each of these components for you below.

Here’s where you think you want to be and why.

Whenever any of my clients mention planning, I always start by asking them if they have fully mapped out their business model. Usually, the answer is no! 

They do things, but they haven’t fully put on paper the relationships and why behind the things they do. So we always start there. I have two main tools I use with clients to do this: the first is the business model canvas, and the second is the logic model template I outline in my freebie you can get here. Or, ideally, do both!

Next, when planning, we create the exact same template for a given point in the future – usually not more than a few years out – and add on a strong why to both anything that changes and anything that stays the same. Without the why it’s just planning for planning’s sake. For those that operate on some sort of very set annual cycle – usually in education – three to five years makes sense. For those that are just continuously operating, I always recommend a shorter time span. It’s really about how many cycles you have to iterate and learn. 

My Strategy Instead

I recently did this with my own consulting business. I’ve had a strong model of engaging in strategy consulting, but a few months ago I realized something was missing – and that something was impacting. The impact is 100% my why; this probably resonates with almost all social entrepreneurs. I was serving larger and larger clients in multi-month projects, but that meant that I wasn’t able to see my clients’ impact increase, and if it did, it was hard to pinpoint it back to any aspect of our work together, which didn’t provide very helpful data for me to figure out if what I was doing was working or not.

While I wasn’t going to shift my model overnight, I created a future model on paper in which I’m working with a larger quantity of smaller super impact-focused clients on a much shorter-term basis and making money. 

As consumers, we see this future modeling happen all the time, like with Netflix’s shift from mailing DVDs to digital content creation or car companies’ commitment to increased MPG in their fleet. 

And just as strategists at these companies did (or are doing), I needed to figure out how to get that future model. 

Which brings me to . . . 

Here’s how I think you can get there!

Next, I have clients literally list this out. How do you think you’re going to get to this ideal state in X amount of years? This is where creativity gets to live. But it’s also where this caveat is crucial: Each step you write down here is – unless already tested – an assumption. What does this mean? Let’s say for example that within a couple of years you want to double the number of people served; this is clear when you make your ideal state business plan. 

To do so, let’s say you want to enter another market. Unless you have any information that proves that entering this new market is going to double your numbers, you’re assuming that entering this new market is going to double your numbers. You may also assume that doubling down on marketing, or hiring new staff, or a myriad of other things are going to double your numbers. 

In creating your “here’s how we think we can get there” plan, choose one of those assumptions to start off with and a plan to start implementing it –  but keep a holding pen of the others.

We’ve been able to see this evolution with Netflix. First, the phased-out DVDs and started distributing content online. Then, they introduced the original content. 

In my own business model, I hypothesized that leaning into my Impact Tuneup – my introductory product designed for my new target customers – as well as investing in marketing would help me shift my model to eventually (and hopefully) create and launch a digital course for social entrepreneurs next year.

And then, it’s time to test.

brainstorming

Here’s how you’re going to know if you’re on or off track.

Finally, once my clients have all the above figured out, we work on metrics tools and systems to figure out if the untested ideas they initially implement are leading them in the right direction or not. 

This is a good place to remember that informative data is always better than perfect data. Simple measurement tools that get done are far more useful than intricate measurement tools that don’t get fully implemented. 

Adapting Your Business to the Pace of Change

If the data is coming back saying that this idea is actually not leading to the ideal state, then one of two things need to change: either the idea or the ideal state. This is where the constrictions of traditional business and strategic plans get super frustrating because everything in the plan assumes both the steps and ideal state are constant; more often than not, both end up changing a little based on new information and data. 

You can bet Netflix took incremental steps in its move from DVD mailing to content creation to generate customer data and inform its strategy along the way. In my own business, I’m using one-on-one Impact Tuneups and feedback from clients and the market to help inform what may work for my future digital course, and am testing all sorts of marketing and PR strategies before I gung ho invest in them in 2020. 

The organizations I witness that deploy an agile, responsive planning process and put all the above on paper excel at increasing both their impact and revenue. And I can’t wait to see how this process goes for you.

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Hannah is an expert in the business and community engagement strategy of small businesses, nonprofits, social enterprises, and ethical brands, running her own social impact consulting, coaching, and advising practice.
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