Kamis, 09 Februari 2012

Planning for Uncertainty


The traditional business plan includes short-term and long-term goals and projections. But, how do you plan when you can't guess what will happen? Some things are shifting faster than you can keep up with, while other things can drastically change based on politics. Part of the reason for our current economic challenges is due to short-term thinking. Traditional business planning is becoming obsolete.

However, if a business abandons long-term planning it has no direction and will be totally reactive and not proactive. The focus on short-term trends will cause a business to chase after opportunities, instead of creating them.

So, what is a business to do in these uncertain times? The key is to develop a plan that has both a flexible foundation and scalable systems.

Consider the typical insurance agency. It would have various lines of business; personal lines, commercial lines, group benefits, etc. Some agencies might have several niches like construction, retail, D&O, etc. These business segments are the foundation of the business.

The business segments can be considered as something closer to long-term goals. It is easier to predict that health insurance is currently uncertain, while personal lines seems stable at this point. The key to long-term planning is to accept that one or more segments might not perform in the future. The agency needs to plan for flexibility between departments.

Regarding insurance agencies', if health insurance sales drop off significantly, how can those resources be redirected to other lines? Or, what options are available to decrease overhead? It is important for a business to add or delete segments of business as trends change. In most cases, these trends would take about five years, plus or minus a couple of years.

Create a Scalable Plan 
Once these segments are identified and trends established, the next steps is to create a scalable system. A plan needs to be established to grow or shrink each segment of business based on current trends. Let's assume the contractor's niche is shrinking. What can be done to increase sales in the other niches? Scalability means to plan for increasing or shrinking a segment of business based on demand.

A scalable business is able to increased revenues while the ratio of cost to revenue is less to deliver than current ratio. In other words, the cost of growing is far outweighed by the resulting profits. A scalable business is one that can take on new clients without increasing workload.

Businesses will always have operating costs, but scalable businesses try to keep low their variable costs -- or the costs incurred with each customer they gain. A business that follows a scalable model will not have its cost per customer increase, even if it gains 100 customers overnight.

Insurance is a little less fickle than other businesses. Cabbage Patch dolls and Pet Rocks have a very short cycle compared to most lines of insurance. This means insurance agencies have a little more time to scale the business, compared to some other types of business. Insurance agencies are also not as scalable as a business that does not manufacture widgets.

The good news is that when there is a focus on niches or specific lines, the agency is able to have some level of scalability. It is important to create a system to quickly adapt to short-term changes. If one line drops, the agency needs to be able to move resources to the lines that have the potential for growth.

This type of system will require cross training and individual flexibility. The business plan needs to incorporate these requirements and train its people to know when operations need to change.

Conclusion 
These are uncertain times. Most businesses are experiencing increases in risk. They key is to develop a business model that can adjust both its foundation and scalability, depending on the circumstances.

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