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Rip Up Your Five Year Plan

If there's one thing we've all learned in the last twelve months, it's that the business and economic landscape is ever-changing and no one can predict what's next. So isn't it time small businesses stopped wasting time with five-year plans?

It's one of the most prevalent rules for entrepreneurs: the long term plan! But in 2010, small businesses are learning that it's more important to be agile and flexible. Plans are unhelpful when they restrict your thinking or don't allow for deviation or reinvention. Joe Oliver, founder of Bash Creations, an eco-entertainment consultancy in London has been in business for more than three years and never wrote a business plan. "I have been lambasted for my lack of planning," he says. "However life is about surfing the good and bad waves. My inertia in planning has allowed the business to be flexible enough to weather every kind of storm, while also allowing me to make split-second decisions about holidays and new markets."

That kind of thinking can give you the edge in the market. People like Joe are realizing that liberating their companies from traditional business planning means they can be both more enterprising and more robust for survival in difficult times. Here are four tips for navigating your way through the unpredictable business landscape without a big strategic plan:

  1. Think fluid. Don't get stuck to a rigid strategic plan. Instead, see where the water flows and trust your instincts -- not your spreadsheet -- in pursuing new options. Make sure your business is agile enough to react to market trends or new innovations in technology. If you spot a new opportunity, you don't have to check it's on the plan first -- just go for it.
  2. Prototype. Test your ideas in the real world. Better to launch beta versions of your website, so you can evaluate and tweak as you go, rather than trying to perfect the model before you launch. Otherwise you might never get the site off the ground.
  3. Reinvent. Learn to love change and be prepared to rethink what you do and how you do it. Maybe your business feels a bit stale, a bit stuck. You might need to shake up your organization so your clients start thinking differently about you. Re-energize your organization by taking your team on an 'away day' to brainstorm new ideas; think laterally about how you can re-engineer your offering to grow the business.
  4. Think goals, not plans. Set objectives for the year: deadlines to meet, products to launch. It's important to know what you want to achieve -- if not necessarily how you'll get there. This allows you to think big without initially worrying about the details. A goal may be "I need to get a new client every month." Perhaps you don't have a strict linear plan for how you'll actually achieve that -- you just start off the instinctive way: word of mouth, social networking, client meet-and-greets, and so on. You can't chart this activity on a graph, but mentally focusing on the goals will help you reach your desired outcome.
A timeline or a spreadsheet can't capture those opportunities that arise from serendipity and random meetings. If you remove the traditional business planning mindset, you'll be liberated to grow your business in line with how the world really changes -- not with what it says on a spreadsheet.

If you're interested in thinking differently about the future of your business, download my free ebook "Unplan Your Business."

Photo by Flickr user DaveBleasdale, CC 2.0

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