Coming up on a new year is a good time to talk about a process for goal setting and planning.

Unless you’re applying for some kind of financing, there’s no need for a small business owner to do a 10-year business plan. If Covid has taught us anything, it’s how quickly things can change. What most of us need is an organized way to outline our goals, collect our ideas, and create an action plan that sees us through the next 12 months. So grab a couple of pieces of paper because here’s one way you can do that.

First, there’s the old saying “it’s hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.” So take a moment to answer two questions: What worked this year and why? What didn’t work this year and why? The first question is important because it’s only by taking the time to acknowledge our accomplishments that we clearly see the habits and actions that are working in our favor. One of the best things you can do for your business is maintain consistency wherever it’s yielding positive results. That’s easier to do when you can consciously articulate why something is working well.

The second question is important not because we need to flog ourselves with guilt but to get curious about why an effort failed or maybe didn’t get off the ground. It may reveal needs around your systems, hiring, training, capacity, or finances. Specifying those needs will help inform the goals you choose and the actions you take.

Next, make a list of your top 3 goals for the next 12 months. I recommend 3 goals, no more than 5, because what receives our focus gets accomplished. If you spread your attention too thin, chances are you’ll get many things partially started. This is also where it’s very tempting to start listing a bunch of actions. Try to stay in big picture mode for this part. We’ll definitely get to the details next, but for this step think more broadly. Is there a product or service you’d like to launch? Do you need to expand your team or your facilities? Are you due for a major technology upgrade? Goals have a systemic impact, so take your time in choosing the ones that will create the most positive shift for your business this year.

Now it’s time for the details. Without self-censoring, brain dump all the actions needed to achieve your goals. Get as granular as you feel is necessary. It’s OK if you can’t think of absolutely every last thing. You’re not carving this into stone. You’re using this as a guideline to help you focus. Once you’ve listed everything you can think of, begin to prioritize it. You may want to organize actions by theme, or prioritize them in a way so that one lays the foundation for the next. 

OK, now the grand finale…. A quarterly action plan. Personally, I like to create a table in Word with four quadrants, one for each quarter of the year. At the top write What, How, When, and Who. Using your prioritized actions as your guide, start to populate each quadrant with the actions and milestones you want to accomplish. What will you do, How will you do it, When do you want to accomplish it, and Who do you need to involve? As a quick example, let’s say you want to undertake a major software conversion. What research has to be done and what features are you looking for? What do you want this change to accomplish for your business? How will you implement the conversion? How long will it take, how many phases are involved, and how will it impact your team and customers? When would you like to have the conversion completed by, and are their progress milestones along the way? And Who on your team or among your vendors can help you fully implement this change? 

Those answers become the fuel for your actions. So use this exercise as an opportunity to visualize your goals so they turn from ideas into implementation!