The small business paradox of 'busy-ness'

I recently heard a business owner say, “We just don’t have time for the planning stuff, we just need to start marketing!”  This statement is a microcosm of the small business owner’s paradox of busy-ness. Hands up if you’re guilty? I know at times that I am.

A small business owner must manage all aspects of the business for themselves.  We have to plan, implement, respond, drive, enthuse etc, and all on their own.  Action has to be now, because we do not have time for planning.  We are just too pressed to do so many things in the same 24-hour day.  If this sounds like your life, then you aren’t alone. As of September 2018, 45% of small business owners believed their stress levels had increased over the last year.

Sadly, this paradox of busy-ness captures many small business owners and it can be so hard to see the way out of it.  Society’s penchant for instant gratification further reinforces our need for instant action.  Nike…  Just do it!

But in truth, the only way to fix this comes from finding the courage to face the challenge of a moment of stillness and use this to prepare and plan.

Nobody builds a house without some form of plan.  And that goes for their children’s play house too.  Nobody goes on holidays without some form of plan, starting with a budget, destination, flight bookings and some date outlines.  Nobody cooks a meal without a recipe (perhaps on paper, their iPad or just in their mind) so they can purchase the right ingredients.

Planning our actions provides clarity about what we are seeking to do, guidance about how we will do it, communicates our intentions to align our team and helps us identify and reduce risk. So why are we choosing not to plan and instead fly by night?

The simple reality is that instant action might not be better than no action at all.  Unless you are sure the instant action is appropriate, correct and will yield the right results or at least send you down the right path - it might be a waste of scarce and valuable resources. 

Worse, it can confuse and distract both staff and customers by sending poorly considered, mis-understood or conflicting messages. If you’re frustrated with your team’s decision making or lack of initiative, how well is your vision and plan communicated to them? Do they understand their roles in fulfilling it?

The trick lies in making a plan without being lost in the planning process. There is a simple solution in the Pareto Principle.  Look at the situation, allocate a specific amount of time as being available for the planning process and go for it.  This is likely to be as small as two-three hours at any point in time.  Do the best plan you can in three hours. And start implementing it.  The come back to it within four weeks and spend another two hours on it.  Tweak it, streamline it.  Add new elements to it.  Make it better.  Keep it clear and concise.

I’m not here talking about a lengthy charter document that details every little element of a business. The only way to make a plan truly valuable is to follow the KISS principle – keep it short and simple.

The last aspect is to very intentionally include the people in the planning process whom the planning will impact.  For example, in a manufacturing business, the planning process needs to include the marketing manager, production manager, sales manager and the MD.  Why?  Because the planning process will help them develop their own language where they discuss, agree and understand the words in the same way. It helps the MD to align not only the plan, but their communication, their aspirations and their intent. This way, they are inspired, motivated and invested in the process and can bring their own teams along on the journey.

So, for the small business owner dealing with the paradox of busy-ness, not planning is just like the old euphemism of ‘shooting yourself in the foot’. You’ve heard Winston Churchill’s ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail’.  You might have read that ‘the only thing worse than failing to plan is over planning’. There are so many metaphors about this because it is important. If it wasn’t then no one would ever talk about it.  

Think about this: Is your planning process working for your organisation? What are your roadblocks to planning successfully?