The other day somebody tweeted my article What Makes a Good Plan, something that comes from my book Hurdle: the Book on Business Planning, which I wrote in the late 1990s, at the height of the big Internet boom, the same one that turned into a bubble and popped in 2001.

I popped over to look at that article, and I found it’s a good reminder of what’s changed about business planning and what hasn’t. Which made me think of what will never change about business planning, and what has to change.

What hasn’t changed?

All of this:

Successful implementation starts with a good plan. There are elements that will make a plan more likely to be successfully implemented. Some of the clues to implementation include:

  1. Is the plan simple? Is it easy to understand and to act on? Does it communicate its contents easily and practically?
  2. Is the plan specific? Are its objectives concrete and measurable? Does it include specific actions and activities, each with specific dates of completion, specific persons responsible and specific budgets?
  3. Is the plan realistic? Are the sales goals, expense budgets, and milestone dates realistic? Nothing stifles implementation like unrealistic goals.

The subtitle above the illustration, hard to see in its reduced picture there, says:

Planning is a process, not just a plan

I’m glad to see that I’ve been writing that for a long time now. It’s as true as ever. And also this, about the process:

Even if it is all these things, a good plan will need someone to follow up and check on it. The plan depends on the human elements around it, particularly the process of commitment and involvement, and the tracking and follow-up that comes afterward.

What has changed?

To start with, my original has a fourth point, the bottom brick in the diagram, labeled “complete.” I’m glad, in retrospect, that I wasn’t too dogmatic with what’s complete. I wrote:

  1. Is the plan complete? Does it include all the necessary elements? Requirements of a business plan vary, depending on the context. There is no guarantee, however, that the plan will work if it doesn’t cover the main bases.

Today that’s way too static. It’s as if the plan were supposed to take roots in the ground. Real business planning these days keeps the plan — what’s going to happen — at its core, and those documents, pitches, and speeches drawn from the plan are just output. Those main bases that a plan was supposed to cover, back then, shift too quickly today.

Another thing: it’s not a hurdle. It’s a long-term process. It reminds me how much I’ve come to dislike the title of that earlier book, Hurdle. I confess: I thought of it as a hurdle to be conquered and left in the past. Do you have a plan, or not. Today I think that a good plan is never done. It’s always changing. The hurdle idea is no longer valid.

What has to change?

We’ve all got to get over the myth of the big business plan document. Business planning is desperately needed to help us steer businesses and manage change in a rapidly changing business landscape. Too many people confuse business planning with the big formal plan, and end up dismissing what’s good — business planning and planning process — while what they really mean to dismiss is the old formal plan document. Not planning.

What will never change?

Sure, if you do other things brilliantly, give great value, market beautifully, sell well, and deliver, you can prosper without business planning. But for those who want to really do their best, manage their business as well as they can, and control their own destiny, planning, and planning process, are vital.

Tim BerryTim Berry

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