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How to stop Business Planning Paralysis and get out of the 'messy middle'

Category: Business Planning

With the current crisis and challenges that we’ve all been facing over the last few months, it has been extremely difficult for business owners to make any firm plans or deliver their strategic goals.

Many businesses have had to pivot and adjust their products and services, routes to market and in some cases their entire business model in order to continue to operate effectively under the current circumstances. But, as lockdown restrictions are beginning to ease, and businesses can start to think about returning to a ‘new’ normal, the big question that business owners are asking now is, “When can I start planning with confidence?”

In our opinion at Firestarter the answer is ‘right now’ – there is no time like the present, and we shouldn’t let the current challenges leave us stuck with ‘planning paralysis’.

In this article, we’re going to focus on some practical and pragmatic advice on how to write an effective business growth plan. At Firestarter, we have been working on exactly this type of planning with our clients for many years and have developed a range of principles and tools that make it easy for you to make progress.

There are many different themes and categories to focus on with planning, which can often lead to confusion and a sense that there’s too much to do, or you can’t see the wood for the trees. If you also add in the need to look at different planning horizons, you can begin to see why it can prove difficult to focus on the right areas. The key is to break everything down into smaller, manageable chunks, so to start with let’s separate out different timescales, such as:

Don't get stuck in planning paralysis

  • Next month
  • Next 3 months
  • To Christmas this year
  • To the end of 2021
  • Your legacy

Each of these timescales should help you to work out why you are doing this, what you are trying to achieve. It’s important to focus on short/medium term planning first and get out of what’s often called the ‘messy middle’ (that tricky area that’s neither immediate short term tactics or longer term strategic thinking) so that you can concentrate on delivering your longer term strategic goals.

Again, in the interests of keeping things simple, it’s a good idea is to get some good headline elements to plan around. Here are some that we would suggest to get you going:

Financial – P&L

Understanding when sales are going to get back to forecast levels, what will be the financial impact of changing to a new business model – try to answer key questions that will have an impact on your P&L

Financial – Cash

Clearly, the current crisis will have had some kind of impact on your cashflow position, so this area will focus on different planning tactics for different horizons as we move out of this period.


Has your product offering changed to address the current challenges? Is that just temporary, or something that you will continue with in the longer term? Focus on understanding the impact on your existing product development plan.

People – Team

What impact has the current situation had on your team and how do you plan for the future? Focus on what your team needs to look like – now, in 3 months’ time and beyond – to deliver your goals.

People – Senior

How do you structure your management infrastructure to deliver your goals? Who are the people you need around you to deliver your vision?


With the changes that we’ve all had to make over recent weeks, how well positioned is your business to operate in a digital world? What about people working from home, how will your business adjust?


What’s your world like now, what do you want to be doing in the future, what’s your role in your business? It’s always important to remind yourself why you are doing this and what you would ultimately like to get out of it.

Getting it all out of your head and into a document

The next challenge is to combine these key elements with your planning horizons. Here’s a simple template for you to download and use:

Planning Template for download

It’s pretty simple to use (as we’ve been saying above) – all you need to do is decide on your personal key elements and planning horizons, then fill in the blanks. Don’t be intimidated, just focus on your instinct – your first view is probably 95% correct so don’t over-engineer it, say it as it is!

Just start writing!

Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help – get a second pair of eyes to challenge and ask you questions about your plans. You’ll be surprised at how easy it comes together and shouldn’t take you more than an hour or two to complete.

However, whilst this is great in theory, what you will have put in your template are effectively just ‘targets’ – the next step (and really valuable part of this process) is turning these ‘targets’ into a workable task list.

Translating plans into action

Once you have identified your key elements and added your goals against the different planning horizons, you should be able to study that template and ask yourself ‘what do I actually have to do?’ in order to make these things happen. Always focus on small steps, but keep moving – Ask yourself ‘what is the next thing I have to do to move that item forward?’ and then the next thing, and the next, and so on.

It may be that you need to start with the nearest planning horizon, which is often the most logical approach, but sometimes it is just as effective to start with your ultimate vision and work back from there. The key is always to get out of the ‘messy middle’ as quickly as you can and identify action streams to make things happen.

In our experience, you’ll be surprised at how few action streams you actually end up with. If it’s done properly, there probably won’t be more than 10 action streams to deliver your ultimate goals.

However, the critical thing is to get on with the work, which is where we start talking about rhythm and rigour at Firestarter – small steps, little and often but always moving. A key tip here is to get yourself an accountability buddy – someone who can really challenge you and hold you to account for actually doing the things you need to do every week.

So, in conclusion – our key tips for stopping planning paralysis and helping you to deliver your goals over different planning horizons are:

  1. Work out the key elements that are most important to you
  2. Use a simple template to plot out your goals against different planning horizons
  3. Don’t overthink it – just write
  4. Articulate the actions – work out what you are actually going to do
  5. Get an accountability buddy!

At Firestarter, we consult daily with businesses like yours to ignite and sustain their sales growth. Our business growth consultancy is second to none, with over 25 years industry experience, and a diverse portfolio of clients that span throughout the UK. Get in touch with us today – we’d love to hear from you.

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