Better Business Planning—This Time

Oct 30, 2006

As the fall air turns crisp and cool here in Northwest Arkansas, many folks’ thoughts turn to football, leaf raking, and the upcoming holiday season. Owners and managers of A/E/P and environmental consulting firms, however, are probably thinking about their business planning. How should we do it this year? Who should participate? Should we use a facilitator? If so, who? What should we be focusing on for next year? How can we make the planning process more meaningful? How can we get our employees and owners to accept this plan as valid and worthwhile? These are all good questions that deserve an answer. And this year is as good a time as any to make some changes in your planning process. I’ve been working on business plans for firms in this business (and a few others) for more than 26 years. Here’s some of what I’ve learned: Everyone needs to be involved in the planning process in some way, even if it’s just being asked for their opinions. Business planning is a top-down process as well as a bottom-up process. Your lowest-level people have insight and experience that the top people will never have. And the top people have vision and perspective as well as the ability to allocate resources that the lower-level people can never have. Both types of people need involvement in the plan. The top folks have to establish why the firm is in business and what markets it serves and services it provides. The lower-level people have to figure out the nitty-gritty details of implementation. All people in the firm have something to contribute to the planning process. Most facilitators aren’t that helpful. Think about it— how is someone who works on their own or as a part of a two-person firm going to help you become more successful? What’s their perspective? Have they started, grown, bought, or sold any companies— real companies? Or are they, at best, simply articulate entertainers who cannot keep a job and read every pop-psychology management book? You probably don’t need any outside involvement, but you might be able to benefit from it IF you had some smarter selection criteria for your business planning consultants. Look for experience working with firms in your business. Look for people with a track record of success, not failure. Find someone in a firm that has a full complement of services to help you implement your plan. I’ve never seen a plan that didn’t require action items in marketing, recruiting, information technology, or ownership transition/valuation. Your consultants should be able to help you with those things. And, last, be aware of the difference in a facilitator vs. someone who can add insight and provide sound business advice. They aren’t necessarily the same kind of individual. You should be focusing on what’s most important to you— that includes both solving problems in the business and capitalizing on opportunities. You can overdo either of these. Too much focus on problems and your planning sessions will get mired down in details and suck the life force out of all who participate. Too much focus on opportunities and the plan will lack substance and credibility with the rank-and-file who actually do the daily work of the firm. Both are critical. WHAT problems and WHAT opportunities should be addressed is a more difficult question. This is where your research and pre-planning studies of employees, managers, owners, clients, and potential clients can be useful. Of course, when it comes to opportunities, don’t ignore your own intuition, either, as most truly original ideas come from there vs. research! You can make the planning process more meaningful and get more acceptance of the plan by applying some discipline to it. Do it at the same time every year. Make sure the plan is done before the year starts. Pay particular attention to all language used in the plan. Beware of “sloganism” as it is a surefire way to turn off a lot of knowledgeable workers and creative types. Does it sound like it came out of a pop management psychology book? If so, change it. Keep the document brief and the language in it clear. Make sure that non-engineers and non-scientists could understand it. Your bankers and perhaps some of your clients will want to see the plan. Include all background research performed in an appendix. Share the plan with everyone and then be sure to track and report progress toward your goals on a regular schedule. Refer back to the plan regularly in your internal communications with your employees. The solid majority of A/E/P and environmental firms do business plans each year. But there’s also a certain amount of dissatisfaction and frustration with that process from all levels in many of those companies. Now is a good time to tune up your planning process for 2007. Who knows— it might actually help make you more successful than ever! Originally published 10/30/2006

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.