Why do professionals get stuck in business planning?

Charles Kingsmill on April 4, 2017

Simply put: Because they plan for business as usual

You want to know how the happy few plan their success? Read on…

I’ve been asked to review and improve many dozens of business plans for professionals like lawyers and accountants. Fairly quickly, it’s easy to spot a number of recurring problems with those plans.And over time, you can also see that they don’t deliver, in a big sense. Yes, there may be an action list that gets done, but business plans are not the path to happiness and fulfilment that they should be.

The issue is that professionals don’t like planning very much. They treat it as an exercise in writing down all the things they have to do. A verbal representation of the big things in their in-tray. So their plans are to-do lists, not inspirations for change. They are focused on activity not strategy. On what, not on why. Partly this is because they don’t want to be criticised by their peers for not being busy enough. And partly it’s because they don’t have the luxury of time to think strategically.

You can reduce strategy to a few simple questions: Why are we in business? Where shall we compete? How will we win? Who will do what and when? Strategy for a professional isn’t like strategy for a company; it’s much simpler. For professionals, the why is pretty obvious; they like solving problems – but which problems in particular? The where is still a big question, but most professionals answer it with geographies and industries. The how is fairly obvious too – most firms know how to compete… but critically it comes down to actually changing things.

Nowadays, whenever I review a professional’s business plan, I ask a few big questions to find out whether they’re clear about what they’re going to change to succeed. These questions follow a specific sequence.

(1)  What target market do you wish to serve in future? Most plans lack focus. So:do you have a clear sense of which geographies, services, industries and clients you want to work with – or continue working with? And which you will not serve? (Strategy is also about what you choose not to do.) What client issues do you want to work on?

(2)  Are you clear about what your target market values? Many professionals see the market only from their own side of the desk. So: have you isolated the shortlist of specific things that would make professional services genuinely valuable to those particular clients and prospects in those geographies and industries?

(3)  Is there a coherent action plan for increasing your value to your target market? Most professionals spend time on their work, not on how they work. So: almost certainly, your plan will need to include specific improvements to your industry knowledge, service innovation, client handling, project management, …

(4)  Is there a concrete relationship-building programme?  Many professionals neglect relationships. So: is there a business development programme for keeping and growing existing clients, and for building relationships with targeted prospects (and for dropping clients who are no longer on-strategy)? And for cross-selling? And for building relationships with people and organisations that can refer business to you?

(5)  Is there an action plan for increasing your practice’s value to the wider firm? Many professionals treat their firm just as an office, but there are many mutual benefits from a strong firm. The value you could bring of course includes

  • improvements to the P&L, but also
  • stewardship of the firm,
  • training of the next generation,
  • building the firm’s reputation,
  • offering cross-selling opportunities.

(6)  Does your scorecard support all five of the topics above? Most systems measure business as usual, not what they’re trying to change. So: can you measure progress in changing these five areas?

(7)  Is a significant part of your remuneration and reward tied to the scorecard? Most professionals are paid on business as usual, not what they’re trying to change. So: how much is at risk? How much upside is there from success?

I’d love to keep my list to seven, a number which has a sort of cosmic significance to it. But no. There’s an eighth question which is also massively important.

(8)  Do you have a sense of genuine enthusiasm and accountability for all the above changes? Most professionals only write a business plan because they’ve been told to.So: can I hear the voice of the writer? Is there a sense of wanting to achieve these things, of original thought, of passion, of determination?

If a professional has good answers to these questions, then he or she has so much more than a good plan. They have a competitive advantage on their route to success. Why? Because very few professionals have the headspace even to stop working on things they don’t want to work on. Yes, many have a vague sense of what client issues they most want to specialise in, but only a very few take the opportunity offered by a business plan to change the way they focus and add value accordingly.

You might want to see whether your own plan addresses these questions. If the answers aren’t there, you could start by writing down some answers now. If you have a clear plan in mind, it won’t take long. And if you don’t, then it’ll take a while. But it’s an incredibly valuable use of your time.