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The balance magazine/

How fit is your small business? Optimizing, training, and investing in success

How fit is your small business? Optimizing, training, and investing in success
June 9, 2022

Fitness, any good trainer will tell you, is about much more than just health. It’s about developing muscles, sure, but just as much about the habits and instincts that set us up to adapt and thrive, whatever challenges are thrown at us. 

We know what this means when we head off to the gym, and we understand that improving our fitness requires a plan — it’s not all out sprinting on a treadmill with no end point in mind. It demands a disciplined regimen of training and exercise, and fitness isn’t something that’s earned all at once, but in increments. 

When it comes to running a small business, the idea of “fitness” means developing and nurturing the ability to adapt quickly to unforeseen challenges — to spin on a dime — and see opportunities where others may not. It means constantly questioning, self-evaluating, optimizing, training, and investing. These are the keys to a kind of success that isn’t just about luck, but the kind of committed discipline that can be learned, and when it’s learned, applied in ways that become almost second nature.

Warren Coughlin has been coaching all kinds of businesses for over twenty years and seen all different sorts of leaders succeed and fail. Being able to regularly evaluate the overall fitness of your business, from top to bottom, and then plan or make decisions accordingly, is according to Coughlin one of the core ingredients to building a sustainable company that can thrive and innovate even in difficult times. 

“Here's a metaphor I use a lot,” says Coughlin. “People think poker is a game of gambling and it isn't. It's a game of skill in which chance is an element. Luck is one feature of the game, but it's a game of skill. A rookie could beat a pro in any given hand, but a pro will always beat the rookie in the game. So how do you learn to make decisions in an environment in which chance is a prevalent element? One of the ways you do that in business is through regular disciplined, strategic planning.”

Coughlin identifies three core aspects to a business’s fitness:

  • Stamina, to keep going, and keep growing, through extended times of effort and strain
  • Agility, to test or seize new opportunities, or maneuver in the face of uncertain circumstances
  • Strength, to push through obstacles and lift others as you need.

The key to maintaining all three of these is optimising use of the three input resources every business must balance: time, team, and money. An ongoing operational plan – which, it’s important to note, is not a grand multi year strategic plan – is key to keeping all of these accounted for, and better understanding how they are interconnected.

“When you plan on a regular basis, you're bringing into account what resources you have available,” Coughlin explains. “You're always considering the wellbeing of your employees because they're one of your key resources. if you don't balance things properly, if you're not looking after your people, you stamina won't be there because you're going to lose people. And then all of a sudden you're jumping around and you're not going to have the agility you need.”

Plan for the short term, and hold yourself accountable every 90 days

Many business owners, and many of their team members, may reach for a stiff drink when they hear even the slightest suggestion of a strategic planning session. Isn’t that when executives gather in a room once every two years and throw sticky notes around, only to ignore whatever the last notes sticking said until the next session, other than maybe sharing them in a nice deck?

Coughlin shudders at the thought – this is not the sort of planning he has in mind at all. For him, constructive planning has to happen as an ongoing discipline, broken down into tangible, achievable, and accountable processes. 

“When you start a year and say, I’ve got 19 things I want to do, you have to recognise you're not going to do all 19 at once,” he says. “If you do, you're going to explode.” 

Instead, he recommends owners break it down into achievable tasks. Pick one or two clear foundational challenges, which you know will be worthwhile and potentially bring about real change. Focus on those, and only those, for 90 days. 

“If you do that every quarter, you'll have tackled eight over the course of a year,” he says. “You show me five businesses that have made eight foundational changes over the course of a year. You won't find them because they're trying to do too much at once. But if you actually narrow your focus in a way that's time-bound, you'll accomplish more and you'll be more in control. It's more like a marathon runner, right? Like you're able to just keep going.”

The old cliché goes that no plan ever survived a battle, or as a certain problematic boxer put it, the planning ends when you get punched in the face. The key is to embrace that, not be defeated by it.

“Every military commander and every sports coach will tell you that,” Coughlin says. “They will also tell you that without the plan they would have got their butts kicked. The plan is a framework for decision making. What you have to do when things change is say, oh, there's this new thing that came up, but is that more important than the thing that I've got on my plan? And then make a conscious decision about that. You can't just be bumped by the wind. And that forces a discipline of thought.”

“Perhaps running that play didn't work last month. So maybe we need an adjustment. To give a simple example, after a month of making 100 sales calls, say you find you only net five meetings and ultimately only one client. So, let’s adapt. We need to do 200 calls. We need to adjust our theory based on evidence. Within the plan, you build in those metrics to know whether or not your theory is proving out.”

When you actually implement effective operational planning, Coughlin says, the real strategic planning emerges. By having the focus to look internally and identify weaknesses, and externally to potential harms and opportunities, you facilitate agility. 

“You might tell yourself, honestly, in this one area, we kind of suck. We're always giving away stuff for free, or undervaluing ourselves. So then you go one layer deeper and ask, why are we giving away stuff? It’s because we don't have good system controls. We're not actually quoting properly. We're not actually speaking to our clients in the midst of the project to make sure that they know where things are. So then there’s a process we can apply – a fix that will help that, both for your current projects and your future quoting.”

The difference between an operational plan and a business plan

“Let's distinguish between a couple of things,” Coughlin says. “I use the term ‘operational plan’. When you go to a bank and give them a business plan, that document, other than securing you financing, is next to useless. You spend weeks building this 40-page document with all this deep competitive analysis that you're never going to look at, and high-level marketing objectives that aren't executable. That's a bloody waste of time.

“At the opposite end of the spectrum is when you come up with a vision statement and lofty goals. Those are not plans either. Saying ‘I want to lose 20 pounds’ is not a plan. That's a goal. An operational plan would say, I am now 185 pounds, and I want to be 165 pounds. Here are the things I am going to do with my available resources of sleep, hydration, exercise, and diet that are going to get me to that goal. Am I going to go and start pumping 200 pound bench presses next week? No, I'm going to start my first month by walking, and maybe doing a few pushups. And then, I have a plan based on what I'm capable of doing and then executing on that plan and monitoring, tracking my results on a week by week basis.”

The core operational tool of your fitness regime is the 90 day operational plan. Try one. Start simple. Sweat it a bit. See how you feel. And lean into it when it starts to burn – that’s when you know it’s working. 

  1. Choose your unique theme for the quarter. “For example, we're saying our main problem right now is we don't have a clear marketing message. We're doing a bunch of marketing stuff, but we don't have a clear message.”
  2. Pressure test your plan and be realistic. “Understand how much capacity you have and accept that paying work will need priority. If you have only three hours available, then don't put five hours’ work in your plan. But the more you manage time, the more time becomes manageable. If you assert control over just one hour of your day, pretty soon, you're going to have an hour and a half that you can make available. When you can assert control over that hour and a half, pretty soon you're going to have three hours that you can manage. This notion that you could go from having no time management to suddenly having complete control over eight hours of your day is bullshit.”
  3. Ensure your actions have inputs. “So say the first step is we're going to articulate our unique selling proposition. We're going to interview some of our clients, and ask what they came for. We're going to find out, what are we actually good at internally? In week one, we're going to send out a questionnaire to clients. We're going to get those answers back over the next two weeks. So this cycle of getting feedback from our clients is a three-week exercise, right? Then based on that data, we're going to do the analysis and we're going to produce our USP.”
  4. Set up measurable analysis. “From there, there's a lot of analysis that goes in. That's going to take us two weeks to do that. Once we come up with that analysis, we're going to pressure test it against some clients to see if it actually resonates. That's going to take us another two weeks. Then if that feels off, we're either going to revise based on the feedback we got or go on with it.”
  5. Hold yourself and team members accountable. “This is a big area where plans go off the rails. You can say what you are going to do, but if there's not somebody who has to be answerable, then it's just going to drift. You need a rhythm of execution. Every week, look at the plan and ask, did we do what we said we were going to do last week? If not, how do we get back on track? Are we going to be able to do this week what we said we're going to do? Have those conversations in a consciously constructive, non-blaming way.”
  6. Integrate, iterate, measure again. “So then we're going to integrate that new USP into our website, into our marketing collateral, and into our sales messages with our sales team. That's another two weeks now, then we're going to start measuring our lead generation and our conversion rates to see if it's had any lift. “
  7. The plan can change, but the plan has to stay the boss. “Two or three weeks into a 90-day plan, boom, a major new opportunity hits. And you start to say, we’ve got to do this stuff. But don’t jettison the plan! Adapt it. Decide what gets replaced and what stays, and ask, how does the new opportunity integrate? If something happens, great, then you have to consciously make an intentional choice about how this impacts the plan and then keep following it. And when you do that, as a matter of discipline, everybody in the organization begins to realize, oh, this is how we make decisions now. This is how we actually meaningfully change things.”
  8. Remember that the first plan is not the last. “So you’ve picked up a couple of things. It seems like you’re not really doing much this quarter. You're right. You know what you're going to do. You're going to succeed in doing everything that's on the plan. And then you're going to sit down with the team again and say, “we succeeded in everything we've said, and we're good on that plan. We're going to build another one.” And that’s when they’ll really start to understand that this is about execution, not meetings.”

The toughest thing about maintaining fitness can often be keeping up the necessary motivation. By breaking down the process into an ongoing cycle of 90-day sprints, we hope you can stay motivated to keep looking ahead and invest energy in your business, even when times continue to be tough or unpredictable.

Have you tried implementing this kind of ongoing operational planning in your business? Let us know your stories. What were the real hurdles in implementation? How did you keep up the motivation, even as you were stressed about the bottom line?

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