Helping SMEs Plan

I find working with SMEs (Small to Medium Enterprises) especially rewarding: they are enthusiastic, energetic and very committed. Often the biggest problem is actually slowing them down a little: they are is such a hurry to get on with things that the planning stage is sometimes neglected. This is understandable, we’d all rather be doing than planning, but it’s important to see that all that energy an enthusiasm is properly directed. The most helpful approach I have found is streamlining the planning process to its simplest framework.

There are weighty books on business planning and sophisticated software packages, but all require a degree of time resource that is usually at a premium for small businesses.

Working with small businesses is usually done in one of three ways:

  1. One-to-one with the owner/CEO.
  2. With a small team from the same company.
  3. With a group of owners/senior managers from a number of companies.

The one-to-one basis allows a very tailored approach akin to coaching and mentoring. You can quickly assess strengths and weaknesses, understanding and attitude. You can also be more outspoken. It’s important to have done your homework before you meet. A long, drawn-out exploratory meeting is the last thing your client wants – indeed, it’s the last thing you want too as budgets are usually tight with small companies.

The most critical step, and often one that is the biggest stumbling block is setting objectives. It’s not to say that the client does not know his or her objective, just that they have not articulated it – it is something the just ‘know’. The other problem is that SMEs have very real issues to deal with that day, that week or that month. That can make it difficult to see the long term view and set an objective for where they want their business to be in say one, two or three years. I often use SMART objective setting, but leading them to think long term by saying something like; “In one years time…”, and letting them complete the objective statement.

Once you have the objective, I like to get the framework of the plan built right at that first session. That means you can’t begin with a blank sheet of paper, you need some pre-prepared material to work with. You can use a checklist, but I usually find that unsatisfactory as it lacks flexibility – there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution and you can try your client’s patience going through a list of irrelevant topics. You are not really interacting but more interrogating and it is difficult for the businessperson to take real ownership of their plan. That’s one reason why I am a fan of card-sorting. The client can build there own plan while interacting with you. They choose what topics are relevant for them and what they can discard: they decide upon their importance and where items should go in their plan. Importantly it shows the business plan as a process, a series of steps the order of which has a logic behind it that comes out of their own business requirements.

Working with a team within a business can follow a similar route, but you have to be very aware of the group dynamics. More junior members of the group may feel reticent about contributing and you also have to guard against it becoming a forum to deal with personality issues rather than the task in hand. If I’m working with a team of around equal seniority, the fastest and most effective route is to get them to collaborate on one sorting exercise. This usually stimulates a lot of debate and prompts some innovative thinking. Where there are members from various levels or departments it’s necessary to take a view as to whether the previous method will work. If it’s felt that it won’t generate the best result I use the following approach. If the group is small (two or three) I ask them each to prepare their own plan at the same time but in different parts of the room, then compare them and comment on each others’ hopefully moving towards a consensus. With a bigger group I would divide them into teams mixing each one carefully. With small groups you could use checklists, but card sorting is much more flexible and interactive.

With groups of business people from a number of companies the latter approach is usually very successful, but you must make sure that delegates have time and the materials to make notes of their outcomes.

With these approaches you can lay down the framework of a business plan within one reasonable length session. Additional branches, complexities and subordinate plans (financial plans, marketing plans, production plans etc.) being added to that framework as and when the client wishes or the need arises.

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