It’s a shame how many people get put off by business planning because they think of it like the mess in the Cat in the Hat, which was too big and too tall. To help with that problem I’ve had some success lately in pointing out how much of business planning is about telling yourself stories and making them come true.
One thing stories have in common with business planning is that they both get a bad rap in our world. Stories can describe some very important visions of truth better than, say, statistics. They are closer to the complexity of reality. I like what Harvey Cox says here:
“All human beings have an innate need to hear and tell stories and to have a story to live by.”
So maybe thinking of the story can help you with your business planning – and I mean your running planning process, that happens at regular intervals, that helps you manage and steer your company, rather than just a use-once-and-throw-away document – to think how much of good business planning is driven by telling your story.
Here are a few ways thinking of planning as stories that might help:
Start With Your Vision for the Future. Plan to Make it Happen.
The vision statement as a part of the traditional business plan has gone out of fashion. It used to be quite common. Describe your business as you want it to be three or five years from now, and make it a story you can believe is possible. If you start calling it a dream then you’ve probably gone too far.
Now take a step back from the story, and think about what it would take, step by step, to make that happen. How do you get from here, today, to there, in the future? Start planning.
This is closely related to the need to describe success for yourself as a part of your essential planning. Most of us in small business forget how different we are, and how different our goals can be. That’s another story: what’s success for you and your business? Is it going public or coaching the kids’ soccer team? Independence or wealth?
The key, as you move from story to plan, is to get concrete and specific. Go back from the story into the measurable and manageable things you can do to make it happen.
Marketing is About the Customers’ Stories
Even before social media and Web 2.0 there was viral marketing, and before that, referral marketing, and going back even further, word of mouth. John Jantsch calls it getting people to know, like and trust you. Seth Godin calls it being remarkable. And I say the heart of it is about understanding the story.
One part of this is the story of the customer with the problem, need, or desire; and how that person finds your business. In good business planning you create these stories and then make them a reality. What was the customer looking for? How did she find you? What was his impression? The better you tell the story, the better your marketing planning. Did the customer want drive-through fast food, and why, and when, and where? Did the customer want a long quiet meal in a romantic atmosphere for a date? Know the story. Create the story. Plan in useful steps how to make it true.
Another important story is the one that the customer tells her friends. How did she find you? What did he think was good or interesting or remarkable about you or your business? What do you want that story to be, and how can you influence that story? This is where the story leads to better business planning as alignment of all the elements of the business with what you want the story to be.
Management, Done Well, is a Collection of Stories
Your business revolves around the story of your history and your values and your team as it grows.
With business planning, you don’t just tell the stories of the past, you also create and develop the stories of your future. Look ahead with your plan, control your destiny, and drive it in the right direction. Go from vision to imagination to focus and step-by-step concrete measurable activities.
Tim Berry is Founder and President of Palo Alto Software, Founder of bplans.com, and co-Founder of Borland International. He is a Stanford MBA, and principal author of Business Plan Pro. He blogs at Planning Startups Stories.We could call that strategy, and then add the reminder: strategy is focus.