To plan or not to plan

August 2007 » Columns
All firms, regardless of age, size, or stature, should have a vision of where they would like to go and a somewhat formal idea for how they intend to get there.
David M. Wahby

Dear Dave,
Our firm will have its 10 year anniversary this year. In all that time, we have never done any formal business planning, mostly just worked very hard to stay busy and responded to opportunities that have come our way. I don’t know whether we are that good, or just lucky, but so far we have done quite well flying by the seat of our pants. We realize deep down that we probably should be planning, but really don’t know how to go about it. What can you tell us?
K.L., Ohio

Dear K.L.,
All firms, regardless of age, size, or stature, should have a vision of where they would like to go and a somewhat formal idea for how they intend to get there. This process is generally referred to as strategic planning. In the absence of a plan, you’re like a leaf in the breeze—you forfeit control of your destiny to the winds of fate. Who knows where you will eventually end up?

You’re right to be concerned about your lack of planning. Statistically, sooner or later your business is going to hit a speed bump, which you may well have avoided had you been looking to the future via some sort of planning process. Being too busy or successful is no excuse to keep your head down and grinding away without periodically looking up and out to the horizon. "Alas, they were too busy," could become the epitaph on the tombstone for any firm that fails to detect and adapt in a timely fashion to changes heading its way.

Formal planning done well can yield a number of worthwhile benefits. The stop-look-and-listen portion of developing your plan may uncover opportunities or pitfalls that may have otherwise gone undiscovered. Having an articulated vision will allow for a sharper focus of priorities and agendas, and enable management and staff to get their arrows all pointed in the same direction and be more effective. The morale boost from being well organized is not to be overlooked either. It’s comforting to people to know that their leaders seem to have a clear sense of where the firm is going and are working to make it happen.

To develop a strategic plan, many firms hold annual or semi-annual planning retreats, either to formulate a first-time plan or revisit and update an existing plan. However, not everyone agrees that formal planning is an effective and worthwhile investment.

A common frustration with formal planning is that nothing ever seems to come of it. At the risk of inviting criticism from strategic planning purists, the reason so many plans fail to make a difference is that they are too ambitious, or project too far into the future with no clear road map for how to bridge the gap between where a firm is today and where it wishes to go. On the other hand, at some firms, planning is too simplistic and might be nothing more than an annual ritual when managers gather for a get-away weekend packed with golf, dinners, and camaraderie around a few discussion sessions wedged in about the future of the firm. In short, resulting plans often cannot be implemented.

In my experience gained over many years working with A/E firms, most truly successful firms live and breathe in the short term. Sure, they plan longer term to establish a compass-like sense of future direction as a beacon to follow, but they act decidedly for the present.

A well-designed A/E strategic plan will provide general compass heading goals for the next two to five years, but each goal will be deconstructed into a series of logical, doable, end-to-end tasks, with the longest time to accomplish any one task less than six months into the future.

Any task longer then six months to complete is too remote to maintain ongoing enthusiasm and progress. Break complex tasks down into bite-sized smaller tasks until they can easily be accomplished within the six-month window. People working on implementation need to feel they are making measurable progress by regularly knocking off milestones along the way. Small, frequent accomplishments help keep the overall process energized and moving forward.

A strategic plan is always a journey and never a destination. Frequently review progress and don’t be afraid to make adjustments as you go. As tasks are complete, examine the lessons learned relative to the big-picture direction you wish to travel, and energize the next set of task initiatives. Literally bootstrap your firm, in a methodical and plodding, step-by-step march along your intended path.

Finally, to stay relevant you must keep eyes and ears open and be sensitive to changes taking place all around you. It is dangerous and totally inappropriate to plan and operate your firm in a vacuum. What’s happening with your clients? What’s your competition doing? What’s coming next in technological advances to be mindful of? What legislative or other environmental changes are taking place that may have an impact on what you do or how you do it? To have a viable plan, always temper your own ideas about what you might wish to do by a thorough and objective consideration of external factors pressing in on you.

Remember the old adage: Those who fail to plan should plan to fail!

Get answers to your questions about design firm and project management, finances, marketing, and related topics by sending them to Q&A c/o: CE News, 330 N. Wabash, Suite 3201, Chicago, IL 60611, or faxing them to CE News at 312-628-5878. Include your name and telephone number in all correspondence. Your name will not be used in connection with published questions. David Wahby is president of Wahby & Associates, a management consulting firm serving A/E clients. He can be reached at 616-977-9756 or via e-mail at wahby@wahby.com


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