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It doesn't matter if you're a new business owner, a new home owner, or a student trying to determine which of a thousand possible career choices will sustain you now and carve a path to your future --planning should always be the first step.

All too often, I've heard teams complain that they're too small for a process-driven strategic planning activity; what they really needed to do was just focus. Work harder. The problem with this is that if you have the same people working the same problem using the same methods, you're going to have the same result.

Most companies (and most people, for that matter) don't change until they're pushed.

Perhaps you're reading this because you've been downsized and have decided to go into business for yourself. Perhaps the technology behind the product or skill that has sustained you for the past 15 years is no longer supported. Perhaps you're a planner looking for a process. The truth is that the overall strategic planning process consists of three parts: strategic planning (3 to 5 year plan), tactical implementation planning (18 month to 3 year plan) and then project planning (projects being activities that have specific start and stop points and which result in a product). We'll talk about project planning in another blog article.

For the sake of this article, let's say that you've been a consultant or small business owner and are trying to determine next steps -- do I grow the business? What is my product? Who is my market? Where do I go for help? One of the simplest processes to get you started is a SWOT analysis.

SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats) is an exercise that will help you identify internal and external factors that will help:

-- Identify and narrow your market

-- Identify your areas of expertise

-- Identify your resources (employees, contractors, channel partners, etc.)

-- Identify your weaknesses (may be more important than knowing your strengths)

-- Identify your contingencies (exit strategy, emergency planning)

Think of the SWOT as a "WHAT" exercise, and the tactical implementation planning process as a "HOW" exercise. Remember that the old saying that our greatest strengths are also our greatest weaknesses: whereas good strategist may see the "big picture", they may not always the best at getting things done on schedule. A good tactician gets the job done, but may not be the best resource to determine what's next. The point is that you need both.

In closing, the SWOT isn't a one-time activity. Anytime you're considering a new venture, it's a valuable exercise. Revisit the exercise periodically (annually is good) to update changes in your assumptions, the market; your products. Engage trusted partners or stakeholders in the activity to give you honest feedback -- and then improve your process for the next time around.


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