The Seven Questions of Simple Planning

The Creation

  • In the beginning was the plan
  • And it sprang from the assumptions
  • And the assumptions were without form
  • So the plan was void of substance
  • And darkness fell upon the face of the workers


  • And the workers spake unto their supervisors, saying
  • “This is a crock of shit, and it stinks!”
  • So the supervisors went to their managers, and told them
  • “This is a pail of dung, and none can abide the odor.”
  • So the managers went to the division heads, and said
  • “This is a container of excrement, and its odor is very strong.”


  • And the division heads went to their vice presidents, saying
  • “This plan contains the ingredients to make things grow, and it is powerful.”
  • And the vice presidents went to the director of operations, and said
  • “This will result in rapid expansion, and it is potent in its effect.”
  • And the director of operations went to the CEO, telling him
  • “Our people agree that this is robust, and will accelerate our capabilities.”


  • And the CEO looked upon the plan, and saw that it was good.
  • And the plan became policy, and was implemented throughout the organization.

That joke (or one much like it) is so old that I remember getting it for the first time on our newly installed fax machine. I had to copy it immediately on one of those new-technology “plain paper copiers”  because the thermal fax paper would fade.

Unless I’m just hopelessly behind the times, it’s still funny. The tools may have changed, but the people haven’t. Why are so many small businesses forever trapped in the no man’s land between the excruciating pain of a “Comprehensive Strategic Plan” (it just has to be capitalized) and no plan at all? Isn’t there an easier way?

Our clients all use our “Seven Questions” approach to planning. For some, the answers are the starting point for developing a detailed plan. For others, they are the culmination of their entire planning process, and just summarize the results. For many, it is the total “long-range” planning they will do this year.

We have used the same seven questions for fifteen years. Other consultants around the country have expanded on them, made them more detailed, and added more questions. In the spirit of KISS (the acronym, not the glam band) we have stuck with the originals. We find them quite sufficient to make people focus on what’s important.

Here they are, with accompanying explanations.

Question 1:

What will your revenues be for the coming year, in dollars and as a percentage of this year’s revenues?  Just the exercise of deciding what you want to accomplish in the coming year starts you off in a planning mode. Saying you will increase by 7% doesn’t give you a number. Picking a number doesn’t give you a comparison. Doing both makes you look at it with a bit of context.

Question 2:

What is the single most important factor in making that prediction come to pass? It’s easy to pick a number out of thin air. The trick is to figure out how to do it. Do you have to expand product lines or territory? Add a salesperson? Improve marketing? Just saying that you’ll work harder isn’t a plan. Saying you will work harder doing a particular thing starts becoming one.

Question 3:

Our profit margin (gross or net) will go from ___% to ___%. OK, so it’s not phrased as a question. Shoot me. The reason we say “gross or net” is because your plans may affect one or the other differently. Just targeting a bottom line may ignore pricing, cost of goods, or a quest for volume customers. This is the safety valve for question one. Just setting a revenue goal does nothing. Deciding how much you will make from it is vital.

Question 4:

What is the single most important change you can make in your company in the coming year? This is your internal focus. Every company needs to grow, develop and improve. Pick one thing you can do. Is it upgrade technology? Improve systems? Develop middle management? Cross train? Certify in Lean or ISO?

Question 5:

How will your personal role in the company change in the coming year? As the owner of the business, you need to grow in order for the company to grow.Unless you develop new skills, and take on different responsibilities, you are dooming your company to a business version of Groundhog Day.

Question 6:

What is the ONE THING that has to be accomplished in order to realize your goal in question 5? It is easy to say “I will delegate more and do less.” or “I will become more of a strategic thinker.” How will that happen? What specific steps will you take?

Question 7:

How will the ability of my business to provide the quality of life I seek be indicated as a personal scorecard? Running a business can be serial insanity. It’s easy to put off your personal life a week at a time. Weeks grow into months, and the next thing you know another year has gone by. How will you know that you are taking care of yourself? Our clients pick many different goals (exercise, sports achievement, weeks of vacation or nights home with the family), but what they all have in common is that they must be 100% personal, and completely measurable.

You don’t have a plan for the coming year? Start by answering the seven questions. It’s a lot better than nothing.



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One Response to The Seven Questions of Simple Planning

  1. Doug Roof says:

    Excellent advice, John. I offer my clients a less rigorous first step, not nearly as good as yours. It too is designed to get their toe in the water, in hopes they will engage in the process and expand upon it. On one page they list the two or three most important accomplishments for the year; then the two or three shortfalls for the year; then the two or three most important goals for the upcoming year.

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