Building a successful business takes significant time, effort, planning, and implementation to produce the desired results.
The more thoughtful you are in strategically planning your quarterly goals and action plans, setting firm project plan ground rules, and considering other roadblocks or opportunities, the better your chances are for improving your business overall. It all begins with creating a project plan.
So, once you’ve found a great initiative, vetted it with your team, identified the parameters—it’s time to put the pedal to the metal and actually start working on those project plans!
Project plans identify the steps necessary to achieve your key initiatives, thereby achieving a company goal. Key initiatives are the individual ways in which employees will be able to contribute to the achievement of that goal.
Foundations: Creating Your Project Plan
First of all, you’re going to want to go digital. Paper planning is no longer the most efficient method for project planning. There are plenty of software options out there like Wrike, Basecamp, and Asana. Most of these products are extremely user-friendly, scalable, and affordable. At the minimum, using a shared Google doc will keep your project plans in one place.
Once you’ve identified your goals and the key initiatives to achieve them, the project plan comes next. Project plans take each key initiative and put individual small steps in place to help employees work toward completing those initiatives. In addition, project plans assign responsibility and deadlines for each individual step. Develop these at multiple levels throughout the organization based on your goals for the business and your overall strategic plan. Project plans can range from a few simple steps to hundreds in the case of a system implementation or other large initiative.
Remember, every company is different. Project plan development may look completely different for one business versus another. In this case, for example, we’ll focus on what creating a project plan might look like for a smaller company.
What’s the main difference between a small business and a large corporation? The long-term objectives may be the same (grow the business and make a better profit, for example) but typically, smaller companies are more resource-constrained, meaning the implementation of strategic plans may be more difficult to achieve.
Notice we said difficult—NOT impossible! Nothing is impossible as long as you plan carefully, lead with confidence, and don’t give up.
Small Business Project Planning
The majority of small companies will implement a project very informally, and with little accountability as to who is responsible for ensuring the project is completed. I, myself, have been guilty of this more often than I care to admit. Well, I’m human and we all make mistakes! The temptation of sliding back into that informality is still there for me, but the difference is now, I know better.
Creating a project plan sets you and your company up for success. At the end of the day, it all comes down to setting priorities (for a great example, review Stephen Covey’s Big Rocks Exercise) and managing expectations.
Without a formal project plan, there is no accountability from your team because you failed to supply your team with appropriate expectations. Unfortunately, in this day and age, the “do as I say, not as I do” attitude won’t get you very far, especially if your comprehensive goal is to be a high-functioning organization.
Think about it. Most people tend to work better when under a firm deadline. Don’t you?
For purposes of implementing a new project plan process in a small business, we’re going to keep it relatively simple. The first question to ask in developing your project plan is “What does “done” look like?” and define it clearly in terms of how it meets identified requirements (technical, functional, satisfaction of and fit with strategic objectives) as well as any deliverables. Then ask yourself, “What steps do I need to develop in the project plan to achieve “done”?
Turning Key Initiatives into Project Plans
Here’s an example of an initiative and how we would turn it into an actionable project plan.
Strategic Objective: Improve sales by 20% in the next year.
Let’s select the first initiative and develop a simple project plan by identifying what steps we will need to take to accomplish the strategic objective.
- Increase Quarter 1 close rate to 40%
- Project Leader: Lee
- Project Subject Matter Expert: Jake
There are a few things you should notice immediately about the plan. First off, each step is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time Sensitive). Second, there are itemized steps in the plan that can be tied in with other initiatives under the overall strategic objective. Talk about killing two birds with one stone! Often there is a sequence and/or interdependency to the steps and therefore any problems can cascade through a plan.
Note that some of the listed steps might seem to conflict with another initiative. At this point, you would be best fit to ask yourself the following questions:
- Is it more important to build my pipeline to 50, or increase my close rate from 30% to 40%?
- Are these initiatives truly in conflict? Would the pipeline increase be in pursuit of higher quality sales with a higher probability of close?
- Can we combine seeking 5 new customers into the pipeline build?
The most important thing to remember is that it’s your job as the leader, president, or owner of the business to make it easier for your team to succeed. The original initiatives were developed together with your team, and everyone came to an agreement on the plan and perceived the overall goals as achievable.
Now, it’s your job to make sure that actually happens.
Pitfalls of Project Planning: What to Watch Out For
Before you continue to implement a given project plan for a selected initiative, think to yourself, “How could this plan negatively affect the company?” I’m not saying that you should think negatively about your plan, per se. Rather, you should prepare yourself for anything (and hope for the best). The best thing you can do to help your business succeed overall is to come prepared.
Yes, your project plan looks clear and positive. It even sounds like a great plan when you explain it to your team. But inevitably, issues may arise that you didn’t see coming when you developed your strategic plan.
Here are some examples from the project plan above of issues that may arise or result in unintended consequences.
- What could be wrong with increasing the close ratio?
- What if I close on more risky credits? Do we have the controls in place to assure that this doesn’t happen?
At the time you developed the initiative from which your project plan stems, it may have been safe to assume that someone from your financial team would have raised a question if the issue had been a true risk. However, you can’t always assume that. Despite everyone’s best effort, sometimes issues slip through the cracks.
Here, the argument for using cross-functional teams comes back into play and you can see the benefit that having more than one point of view can really bring.
Whatever you do, don’t over-complicate things for your team. You should be thorough, strategic, detailed, and motivated, but keep it as simple as you can while still actively pursuing success. Make a list of goals and key initiatives to measure and pursue those goals, assign responsibility, prioritize each goal and initiative, and make a project plan with a list of all the steps necessary to complete each initiative assigning responsibility and due dates
Don’t be afraid to get things done, and don’t be intimidated. NOW is the time to start!
Pick up a piece of paper and a pen, flip open your laptop, or turn on your tablet. Don’t wait around for the idea to hit you—JUST GET STARTED! Remember the words of prolific artist, Pablo Picasso: “Action is the foundational key to all success.” The rule when creating a project plan is to do your due diligence, then jump in and go for it!
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