For many of us leading professional service firms, “plan” is still a four-letter word. As a noun, it’s all good. We know we need one. Conceptually, we acknowledge it’s an essential component of any successful business. But, as a verb, it’s a completely different story. We never seem to have the time to actually do it, and we seem to be quite skilled at manufacturing an abundance of excuses.

So, what if I say . . . “What you really need is a ten-year plan.”

Sounds almost absurd, right?  How can anyone plan for ten months, much less (or more) ten years? After all, this is an IM, real-time, drive-thru, short-term world! Well, I contend that’s precisely why long-horizon planning so imperative. We cannot overstate the benefits of strategic planning―and developing a strong strategic business plan.

Here’s what happens that hampers planning: Lots of professional service firms make the mistake of jumping into the business planning process without first having a clear vision for success. One of my favourite allegories is Alice in Wonderland. Remember when Alice reaches a fork in the road and asks the sly Cheshire Cat which fork to take. He coyly asks her where she wants to go.  Alice is befuddled, replies she doesn’t know, and the canny feline with the expansive grin observes that it doesn’t matter which path she takes.

Firms that don’t have a long-term plan are just like Alice. You can’t plan unless you first have a clear vision. We encourage our clients to look at a ten-year horizon and ask themselves:

  • What does success look like?
  • What does success feel like? Taste like?
  • What does is it sound like? Smell like?

Visualize it with every possible sense―360 degrees, from the inside out. Maybe you want to have offices in multiple cities and pursue a critical mass of partners and associates. Maybe you want to set a revenue target, or reach for a targeted number of clients served, or even just make sure you’re your business is fully backed up – from redundancies to disaster proofing. Whatever you choose, pick something daunting―that is all-consuming. Pick something that will thrill you to manifest. Many firms are tempted to take historic performance and build a pro forma projecting steady growth over ten years to determine their target. Don’t be that firm. Pick something scary, something that you aren’t positive you can achieve. I had a powerhouse client who pegged it. She called them BHAGs― Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals, and it stuck. Go for the BHAGs.

But you don’t need to feel stuck with a BHAG. Some folks say they cannot possibly pinpoint a ten year target, because things change so much. In many ways they are absolutely correct.  But, think of it as a guidepost. It can be changed, shifted, re-positioned, and adjusted. It’s a place to aim, a target.  Yes, ten years ago, I had a flip phone, and Blackberry was THE business phone choice. Things change. And, Apple remained focused on its vision statement “to bringing the best personal computing experience to students, educators, creative professionals and consumers around the world through its innovative hardware, software and Internet offerings.”

When you start with a big goal, the means to achieve it will come. If you start with a small goal, then you’re never pushed out of your comfort zone in your planning. You’ve probably heard the acronym “SMART” thrown around when people start talking about goals. Throwing the term around is easy, actually using it to set annual goals is harder. A SMART goal has each of the five following characteristics:

Specific.  A strong goal must be crystal clear about what must happen for you to check the box and consider it done.

Measurable.  Put your goals in terms that are capable of being defined metrically. When goals are quantifiable, they’re more likely to be achieved.

Achievable. An unrealistic goal is worthless ― people won’t commit to getting it done, and it works against a culture of accountability.

Relevant. Not all goals are created equal. A goal with horsepower is relevant to an important strategic initiative, not just an idea du jour.

Time-Bound.  Every goal must have a specific date by which it will be accomplished.