Make Business Planning Worthwhile

Sep 20, 2004

We are now in our 17th year of working with A/E/P and environmental firms of all types and sizes around the world. And, over that time, we have seen literally thousands of different companies’ business plans. Business plans exist for many reasons. We use them for goal-setting, to set budgets, and to keep lenders and investors happy. But we have other reasons for doing business plans— hopefully higher-order ones— such as to inspire our people. If a business plan is supposed to be a road map for the future, something that helps paint the picture, something that creates a vision of what’s possible, and something that gets capable people to join the firm, stay with the firm, and work hard to make the dream a reality, then the majority of business plans I’ve seen would have to get a grade of “D” or worse. Besides the nonsensical missions and visions made up of platitudes and spelled out in megawords, there’s all too often a complete misunderstanding of what kind of a position is going to excite people— be they employees or clients. No high ground is staked out, such as “By the year 2020, ABC Associates will be the undisputed worldwide leader in suspension bridges.” There’s no clearly defined, yet lofty sense of purpose that invites further discussion, such as “ABC Associates was created so we can redefine what it means to be a full-service development consultant here in the state of California.” There are no “incredibly difficult, but wouldn’t it be amazing to accomplish” goals, such as “ABC Associates will be the largest K-12 design firm east of the Mississippi.” What we see, instead, is drivel such as “ABC Associates is a leading, high-quality, innovative engineering, planning, and surveying firm, operating out of multiple offices, with state-of-the-art computer systems and highly trained professional staff.” What does this tell you? Not much, frankly. Everyone claims to have high-quality services. Everyone says they are innovative. Everyone says their computers are advanced and their staff well-trained. These claims, I’m afraid, are falling on deaf ears! Then, there are vision statements such as, “Our vision is to earn an 11% pretax, pre-bonus distribution profit on net service revenues of at least $22 million.” How is that a vision? How is this going to get anyone excited about going to work in the morning? How can the vision be to simply make so much money? It has to be more than that! Design and environmental professionals want to change the world— not just make the owners of the companies they work for rich. Finally, the goals and action items are too vague and don’t provide any means of accountability. Goals should be concrete and easy to track— they are targets, things a firm hopes to achieve— and should not be confused with an action item (something that you are going to do, period). I have seen goals such as, “We will become more innovative in our land planning group.” How can you tell whether that’s happening or not? Can you quantify this desire somehow? If not, it’s not really a goal. A goal should be written such as this: “Achieve an average score of 8.5 or better on ‘innovation’ for all land planning projects rated by clients during 2005.” This IS something that can be tracked all along IF the firm is doing continuous client perception monitoring. And action items must be written as a task with a due date as well as the person responsible for accomplishing it. It appears to me that a big part of the problem with these business plans we all have is that, by far and away, most were completed as part of a “do-it-yourself project” by people inside the firm— people with good intentions, but absolutely no background that qualifies them to perform the services. Many firms could benefit from the help of an outsider (better yet, a firm), that is A) knowledgeable about the A/E business and B) willing to go beyond facilitation into confrontation. This type of person may be called an “insultant,” i.e., someone who is unafraid to tell you the brutal truth. They are contrasted with the “con-sultant,” i.e., someone who will con you into liking them by only telling you what you want to hear. One thing I know for sure— there are a lot more “con-sultants” out there helping A/E and environmental firms than there are “insultants!” Originally published 9/20/2004

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.