How long should a business plan be to be useful, actionable, and effective? My answer: three pages.
You’re skeptical. After all, if your 20, 50, or (with one former client) 300 page business plan (yikes!) isn’t working, then how can a three page plan even begin to address the … right?
But your business is different. It’s more involved, convoluted, complex. There’s really no way to simplify your planning process. You have to do it this way (as you have for years) even though it isn’t really delivering the results you want.
I’ve been at this business planning thing for many years, and I’ve tried myself most of permutations – long and short, complex and simple, collaborative and authoritative. I’ve worked in very large organizations (90,000) and very small (five or six). And the clients I’ve served also have come in all shapes and sizes, with a variety of planning processes and deliverables. Through all of this experience, what is most clear is this: it’s not the plan that matters most, but successful execution of that plan. Virtually all organizations spend way too much time creating their plan document, and way too little time working to implement it.
As with all things business, complexity should be avoided. The best answers are elegant in their simplicity. In my view there is no reason why a business plan can’t be summarized in three to five pages. This is a plan that will fit in your back pocket! And that turns out to be incredibly important, because the BackPocket! plan is:
1) Short – A short plan is better than a long one, because it’s much more focused. It’s also harder to write. [Mark Twain’s once remarked that “I would have written you a shorter letter if I had more time.”] The long plan rambles on, with its technical jargon and extraneous charts and tables. In todays distracted, disjointed, ‘ten seconds is a really long time’ business environment, who has time to read anything? Short plan, or no audience.
2) Visible – This very short business plan, folded up and stuffed in your back pocket, is significantly more visible (and useful) than the old thick binder version, tucked away in the conference room library (or under constant guard on the credenza behind the boss’s desk). The BackPocket! plan is portable, it goes with you, and is much more likely to be pulled out and used – shared with other stakeholders, discussed, debated. (Imagine a business plan that actually works its way into the business conversation, into the management effort ongoing in the firm).
3) Scalable – Since everyone in the firm has a back pocket (okay not everyone at all times, but you get the point), each can have their own BackPocket! business plan – covering their department, discipline, market, client, or even project. Instead of one all-encompassing plan for the firm (and thus by definition too unwieldy for almost anyone to handle), with the BackPocket! plan the effort is divided into smaller bites. Consider the culture of communication and collaboration that is suggested here. Everyone in the firm carrying a piece of the overall plan effort, and ready to engage with others to help or receive help. In a firm of five, or a firm of 5000. Show me your plan, and I’ll show you mine.
4) Personal– In aggregate, the BackPocket! business plan is scalable across the organization, but fundamentally it is individually and personally focused. This is crucial, because personal responsibility is the real key to accountability, which is ultimately the key to execution. The problem with most business plans is that this personal responsibility is not clear enough. Individuals may be nominally in charge, but often it’s teams that are listed next to an initiative. (If you want to make sure that nothing gets done, put a team in charge – think U.S. Congress). The BackPocket! business plan is definitely personal: the one in my back pocket is the one I’m responsible for.
You might think this is simple (too simple?) and therefore easy. It isn’t. Yes, the BackPocket! business plan approach is simple (that is, not complex), but it’s not so simple (that is, not difficult). In reality, getting this stuff right is quite challenging. It will take a while to achieve it in your organization.
If your business plan and planning process aren’t delivering what you expect, you need to change. I think your plan should be much, much shorter, and much more visible within your organization. Your planning process should be more scalable, so that others can use similar thinking to plan within their span of control. And the business plan should be personal – in terms of responsibility, accountability and commitment. You don’t need a long, verbose document full of extraneous detail, and written like a PhD dissertation. You need a living, working outline that helps to grow and improve your business. You need a BackPocket! business plan.