How To Tackle Your Business Plan

For many lawyers, accountants and other professionals, this is the home stretch – that final quarter of the financial year where budgets are put to bed and FY22 business plans are supposed to be re-worked, or at least polished up, for FY23.

But this can also be the toughest time of year to actually find the time you need to sit down, think about where you want to be next year and map out a route for getting there. After all, you’re still probably under the pump, ploughing through everything that needs to be knocked over by 30 June to satisfy this year’s budget.  

The good news is that writing your business plan doesn’t have to be a long and laborious effort. Better still, by putting in a little bit of effort now, you can save yourself tonnes of work in the long run. Here’s how.

1.     Start with what you’ll ditch

I’ve seen a lot of professionals go to town on their business plans, adding a whole lot of new activities. But if you’re really pressed for time – which I’m almost certain you are – why on earth would you start by giving yourself even more to do?

My advice is to instead begin your business plan by working out what you can ditch. That’s right, I want you to pull the plug from the bathtub and let some of the water out. That means letting go of those activities where “the juice just ain’t worth the squeeze”. You can read more about how to do that quickly and efficiently right here.

Time is the one thing you can’t make more of so you need to prioritise what actually works. If you really want to stop and reflect on this, I recommend you listen to Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. He points out that the average working career is only about 2,000 weeks – you can’t possibly fit everything you want to do into that time, so figure out how you’re going to use it.

Burkeman also suggests that if you really want to ditch something but can’t, make the conscious choice of going for ‘strategic underachievement’. That is, decide ‘in advance what you’re going to fail at’ or take a leaf from the economic rationalists and practise ‘satisficing’ – that is, selecting a course of action that isn’t optimal but will be acceptable under the circumstances.

Maybe you won’t be the star of the innovation committee or the ESG steering group or the Graduate Engagement program – but does it matter?  It’s alright not to be the standout performer in everything.

2.    Know what you’ve done and where you are now

Another thing I notice is that most busy professionals literally run from job to job. There’s never any reflection because there’s simply no time for it.

Starting a business plan is all about reflection. So, before putting pen to paper have a stop and think about what you’ve achieved in the past year or two. Put aside sixty minutes to consider:

  1. The clients you’ve worked with and how you’d rate them

  2. The projects you delivered and whether you loved or hated them, or felt some kind of emotion in between

  3. The fees you recorded and the work you left on the table

  4. The referral sources you’ve delighted

  5. The pitches you won, and

  6. The random opportunities that became career highlights.

I also think this is the time to wheel out your trusty old SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – so that you know exactly where you stand right now.

3.    Plan on three levels

There are usually three levels of business planning in a professional services firm: the business plans of individuals often nest in the business plans of practice teams or service lines or regional groups, which, in turn, nest in the business plans of the whole organisation.

It goes without saying that it’s more efficient for everyone if plans complement rather than compete with each other. You should be working together like an orchestra of experts rather than a talent show of try-hards. 

Before you begin your own plan ask to see business plans which affect your practice, so you understand the parameters you’re working in.

4.    Plan in three stages

Once you know where you stand now, it’s time to think of what’s next. Here, an effective business plan shouldn’t just be about helping you kick goals this year. It should also be about seeding potential opportunities for the future.

I like using McKinsey’s Three Horizon Model, or Nagji and Tuff’s (2012) Ambition Matrix – or at least an adaptation of them. This calls for businesses to plan for three stages of development: Horizon 1 (delivering and extending your core business), Horizon 2 (developing new opportunities) and Horizon 3 (creating viable options for the future).

To apply this to your own practice, think about how your ideas help for the next 12 months or the next 12 years – or a range in between.  As a very general rule of thumb, about 80% of your time should be focused on Horizon 1 activities, 15% on Horizon 2 and 5% on Horizon 3.

5.    Pick your lasting pathway to profit

Ask yourself whether the projects you’re working on today have any life down the track.  For instance, I remember when Australia introduced a Good and Services Tax in 2000 and there were some heaving consulting engagements by the accountants. Now apps and systems do the work and there’s little-to-no money in the space at all.

At the same time, what is today a profitable service could become a commoditized price-sensitive offering, so you need to think about how future proof your work is too.

This is where Horizon Planning becomes really effective.

Look for where you’re vulnerable and, if you spot something that looks more ‘here and now’ than tomorrow, work on a plan to divert the energy you’re spending on it into an adjacent, more future proof area.

You should also make sure you understand the profit of every engagement – so that you can compare the revenue and margins in your practice from existing sources with those that future sources are likely to bring.

6.    Practice patience

Because our environment is complex and dynamic, business planning should always be a continuous exercise.

There will always be a ‘to do’ list that isn’t done, problems that can’t be solved and times when traditional approaches must give way to trials and testing.

When it comes to executing your plan there will also be lots of variables and things beyond your control that determine what you can do and the speed at which you can do it. 

That said, there are things you do know – for example, the type of practice and market you want to focus on, your workplace’s expectations and infrastructure, your firm’s remuneration and reward structure, your own expectations and personal motivations, and what you enjoy doing.

That’s why I like all implementation plans to start with these but then have a: ‘This depends on …’ column in between the ‘who’ and ‘when’. This covers that huge chasm between making someone accountable and getting it done.

I also like to see professionals check in with their plans each month or two to remember what they’ve written, make sure they’re on track and make adjustments if they need. In business planning, ‘having good think’ is a perfectly acceptable – even necessary – action point.

And finally…

It’s the process of reflective, analytical thinking and the ‘a-ha’ revelations for your practice that give business plans their value – not how many times the document is revisited. It’s also giving into the reality that not everything will turn out as you planned.

As Burkeman noted in his final column for The Guardian (5 Sept 2020):

“The future will never provide the reassurance you seek from it.” So when it comes to making business plans “do that with the awareness that a plan is only ever a present-moment statement of intent, not a lasso thrown around the future to bring it under control.”

Want more?

If you’d like help with building your business plan, or would like a business plan template to get started, then email Sue-Ella or get in touch.

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Sue-Ella Prodonovich

Sue-Ella is the Principal of Prodonovich Advisory, a business dedicated to helping professional services practices sharpen their business development practices, attract and retain clients and become more profitable.

© Prodonovich Advisory. Please respect our copyright and the effort taken to produce the original material in this document. This document or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author.

References, tools and further reading

A more comprehensive list of references and links to planning tools is provided in the PDF version of this article.

Burkeman 0. (2020) The Eight Secrets to a Fairly Fulfilled Life, The Guardian and (2021) 4,000 Weeks: Time and How To Use It, Penguin, Audio and book

Patnaik, D (2021) Creating a Post-COVID Business Plan, Harvard Business Review

Pirsig R (1974) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Harper Torch, Audio and book.

Prodonovich S (2021) 5 Tactics To Help Your Firm Thrive

Prodonovich S (2018) How to Market a Niche

Ramirez R, Selsky J W, and van der Heijden K (2010) Business Planning for Turbulent Times: New Methods for Applying Scenarios Earthscan 2nd Edition


Boston Consulting Group:  The Growth Share Matrix