You build a good plan like an artichoke, inside out from the heart. That doesn’t mean you necessarily start with the heart and go in rapid succession — I am serious about starting anywhere — but it might. Maybe you did your sales forecast first, but eventually your plan will revolve around its heart.

Of course the heart is not necessarily a written document, not necessarily rehearsed, not necessarily a recorded.

At this point, however, we have to address those of you who have a business plan event that you need to prepare for. You need a full formal complete plan for school, for an investor, for a bank, for a boss, as a consultant, or whatever. Then you might have to do the whole thing at once, and not enjoy the luxury of letting it grow organically. Don’t worry, though: you can still benefit from the idea of the core and the blocks.

The artichoke analogy applies when you build the supporting parts of the plan — or blocks, if you want to call them that — around the heart. For example:

  • A really cool way to make sure your planning is useful is to set up the review schedule now, in the beginning. Set up recurring meetings, for example, on the third Thursday of each month. Put these meetings on the calendar. Invite the team members. Surprise people; don’t wait until the plan is done — set up the review schedule first.
  • After you’ve figured out your market strategy, target market, focused offering, core competence, and so on, then you need to think through the logical tactics and specific activities to take that idea to market. What is the message? Where do you deliver it, to whom, through what medium? How much will that cost? You can do that with a strategy pyramid, or not; a milestones table is really practical.
  • A lot of core benefits of planning link to the milestones table. Metrics, for example, are presumably built into that table. Tracking and accountability also relate to that table, so it’s a pretty important block.
  • You really need to take your business strategy and work it into a concrete and specific sales forecast. Hard as forecasting might be, it’s harder to run a business without it. And the sales forecast is when you start tracking. Plan vs. actual numbers will help you adjust your plan, and from that improve your management.
  • You need an expense budget. That’s another piece you can track, so you set up your goals and keep an eye on your progress. And while you’re at it, include costs as well as expenses and you’ll have a better hold on your business.

And with that, I want to pause. Take a breath. Notice that at this point you’ve got a strategy and three key metrics to track: milestones, sales, and spending. You’re on your way. Your planning has started. You even have a review schedule.

All of these things are like the leaves of the artichoke. They surround the heart. They aren’t the only things you can do, though; they are just suggestions. Here are some additional suggestions:

  • I like the SWOT analysis. It brings the teams together.
  • Lots of people like to do the mission statement, or the mantra, or objectives. I like keys to success too.
  • You have to be sensitive to your business, and your business’ needs. Maybe distribution channels are important, so you set some milestones. Maybe product design, prototyping, or packaging is important, so you set some milestones.
  • The more you have a group involved, the more it helps to create a document on the computer. A set of bullet points, or maybe some prose, gets the ideas down so people can refer back to them.

And now another pause. Let’s reflect on progress and process. A lot of this thinking things through, necessary for good business and good management, ends up in the milestones table.

  • Is this plan going to be a document? I hope you see clearly now that it depends on needs. If you’re going to show this document to somebody else, and you expect her to read it, then you might have to start writing things down and organizing things like outlines and structures. The milestones table won’t explain itself.
  • And even if it’s just for your team members, although you will spend less time on sweating the output details, you still probably want to record key points into (Business Plan Pro software comes to mind, but it’s not required) so people can refer to them.
  • Form follows function. More on that later.

So this might be the evolution of a normal plan, for a normal company, startup or not. You do this plan not because somebody says you have to, but because you want to, because you’re interested in creating a business or growing a business. You care about your business. You think about it a lot. Call it planning.

And then, in some cases, comes the business plan event. Or you’re one of those who started this planning task with the full business plan event starting you in the face. No worry — in that case you add the dressing you need like the supporting information, detailed financial forecast, and descriptions of the management team, and you have the formal plan document.

Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.