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Why you should make time for strategic planning

Linda Whitney shares some top tips on how to make time for strategic thinking Why you should make time for strategic planning

There’s a popular business mantra that advises small and medium-sized enterprise owners and start-ups to ‘work on your business as well as in it’. The message is that you need to work on your overall business strategy - but when you’re running around trying to achieve the thousand tasks involved in operating a small business, how do you fi nd time to do it?

Here are some tips about how to make time for setting strategy:

Keep it simple

Business coach Simon Meadows, who has run several SMEs himself and has been coaching for 30 years, says: “I recommend a one-page business plan that includes the aims of the business and strategies that you will use to reach them.

“A one-page plan makes the strategy easier to understand and get to grips with.”

He recounts a recent visit to a business that had a plan 48 pages long. “It included all the strategy, but it was too long to work with or review easily,” Simon says.

Set aside time in your diary

Choose a regular time and day for a weekly strategy review.

“You only need a couple of hours. I do mine every Thursday afternoon,” Simon says.

It’s easy to get carried away with doing something urgent and put off your strategy review appointment, but it’s important not to let that happen.

Sean Thomson, chief executive of Sandler Training (UK), says: “Strategy should be measured and tracked on a weekly basis. It’s all too easy to put things off when you only look at them quarterly - make it a focus each week and block out time in the diary, with a commitment that the meetings cannot be cancelled.”

Be accountable

Appoint a trusted person with whom to talk through your strategic plans, or at least to hold you accountable for doing your strategy reviews. It could be a business coach, friend or a colleague.

When setting strategy, make goals realistic

Sean says: “Business leaders underestimate what they can achieve in a year and overestimate what they can achieve short term.

“Set and agree the long-term goal and then break it down into smaller actions, with a time frame of when each one needs to be completed.”

Share your strategy with others

Gerry Tombs, managing director of software and services company Clearvision, says: “We use a 1-3-5 system - one big vision statement, three goals that will deliver against that vision and five tasks required to deliver the three goals.

“We use this system across all departments of the business and all staff know the vision, goals and tasks and the time frame for delivery. Once every fortnight we have ‘sprint meetings’ to review the success of the strategies for the last two weeks and set them for the next two.”

If you’re a sole trader with no staff with whom to share your strategy goals and decisions, Simon suggests you share them with your accountant and bank manager: “It helps them feel part of your team and they can help you implement your strategy.

“Banks in particular love to have regular information about your strategy. It may also help if you want to borrow.”

Set regular dates for quarterly reviews

Simon suggests looking at your overall business plan and strategy every 90 days.

“These quarterly reviews should be longer than your weekly sessions, which can be kept short and simple,” he says. “If you don’t keep to a schedule of quarterly reviews, your business strategy risks going off at a tangent.”

Take a break

Sean says: “I take one week off every eight to switch off. Having this time away is crucial for me to think clearly and objectively about business strategy.”

Having a break distances you from the day to day activities of business and allows you to see the overall picture more clearly. Last year Sandler surveyed 2,000 small business owners who had successfully been in business for over five years and 19 per cent said they thought up their business idea while on holiday.

Sean points out: “Productivity is not synonymous with hours worked. Prioritising time to unwind means you can reflect and think without distractions, which is essential for business growth.”

Make an annual appointment with strategy

Simon says: “Once a year set aside time to look at your business plan and think about the year ahead - I do this on January 1.”

He calls this ‘forward reflection’ because it involves reflecting on the past year to see which strategies worked and what results they engendered and deciding strategies for the year ahead.

How i found time to work on business strategy

Jake Matthews, co-founder of Just Vehicle Solutions in Newark, Nottinghamshire, says: “When we set up in 2013 we got help from a business coach who asked us to set aside two hours every fortnight for a meeting with him to discuss strategy.

“Often in the early days I thought we could not spare those two hours - we were running around panicking, cold calling and knocking on doors, desperate to get customers.

“We all sometimes thought the meeting was a waste of time. Not now though. We look back and realise that much of that work on strategy, which did not seem very important at the time, is paying off now. “I think that two hours a fortnight has in the long term cut out a few year’s work in terms of growing the business.”

The Just Vehicle Solutions team still meet with their business coach every two weeks, though the company is now long established.

Jake says: “I still sometimes feel our strategy meetings are not ‘real’ work, like the practical work we do day to day, but in fact it’s just as valuable.”

He recommends all businesses set aside time to plan strategy and says: “It’s especially useful to meet with someone who can give a perspective from outside the business. They can often help you see a clearer picture that you get working inside the business day to day.” Read more like this

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