The Business Plan as a Living Document

The Business Plan as a Living Document

Last year was a peculiarly disruptive year, one that had to be slogged through. The day to day business of surviving (don’t ask!) took every last minute of everyday. One consequence of this was that I didn’t have time to blog.

The last ghastly crisis has receded (really… don’t ask!) and life seems to be stabilising somewhat (cross your fingers that this is, in fact, true). So, hopefully, I can get back to blogging again. Not that I gave up writing or developing material altogether: I found time, every now and again, to work on the book I am writing so that, even though I am behind my own writing schedule, it is definitely still a live project.

Before the wheels fell off my life I had also committed to giving talks at some conferences. Although it was hard I honoured these commitments: I didn’t want to let the conference organisers down and I really enjoy giving presentations (although I would prefer not to be swaying with fatigue when I do).

So the next few blogs will be sharing some stuff from these conferences. I hope you enjoy them.

Collins & Co. Not for Profit Conference

I was honoured to be invited to present in the annual Collins & Co. Not for Profit Conference held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in March 2016. I was asked to present on business planning, something I have helped NFP organisations with. My presentation has been embedded below but can also be found on the Collins & Co. website. It is worth having a gander at this as it contains the presentations from all the other speakers as well.

What do you give to the client who knows everything?

What do you give to the client who knows everything?

I overheard a consultant say in the office the other day; “went to see the client, and they knew more than me. How can that happen?” Put that one out on my Twitter stream and it caused much laughter. Surely people expect that a customer can go onto the Internet and read up in areas that they will needed to be skilled up in.” Tim Hughes, Social Disruption – Which Industry is Next?

A large part of my work is offering training and mentoring services to start ups in project, business and strategic planning. Many of the people I work with would not regard themselves as typical business people; among my clients I have more than my fair share of artists, academics, people who run community projects or who want to set up social enterprises. They are naturally creative and innovation (both ideation and implementation) comes easily to them. Many of them have had interesting lives and can boast portfolios of varied work experiences, cobbled together as they have bounced back and forwards between ‘love’ jobs that further their vocations but don’t pay well and other project work to pay the actual rent. If they didn’t start off as people who were highly adaptable and resourceful, then this career path (is path the right word? Perhaps ‘wild ramble’ is a better term) has made them acquire these characteristics.

These people are good at learning things and their creative brains enjoy handling new concepts. They have good instincts for realising when their information, or understanding of it, falls short. Their academic, community or arts backgrounds have instilled in them the habits of discipline and candid self-evaluation of their strengths and faults. When embarked on a new strategy or project their instinct is to rush off lickety split to Google to do research and to book themselves into a bunch of workshops. In general, many people nowadays do this, but I think that my little crowd of clients is hard wired to be super responsive to the learning challenge*.

A picture of the lovely people who came to my last workshop - interesting and varied backgrounds and skill sets
A picture of the lovely people who came to my last workshop – interesting and varied backgrounds and skill sets

And there is so much information on the internet nowadays; and plenty of free workshops and talks too if you know where to look. There is enough information out there to help anyone motivated enough to educate themselves as to how to chuck together a rudimentary business plan. But is this information, in the form of a series of online articles, fact sheets and templates, enough? What role do actual human beings like me have to play? I find that my clients may need me to do any of the following during mentoring or training sessions:

  1. Get them started – it is all very well to burble on about how much information a Google search can throw up, but you need to know the right search terms first. People who have worked completely outside of the business sector but who know they need a business plan often ask me what the hell they even have to think about. Coaching them through the rudimentary steps of planning a business can give them ideas as to what information they should be looking out for. Usually after just one session I find people tend to go zooming off to start their research and self-education. They then may come back to…
  2. Map out a context – information yanked off the internet one Google search at a time comes in digestible but piecemeal forms. The searcher will gather an article here, a template there, an online calculator somewhere else. But there is a danger that this could just remain a higgledy piggledy mess of stuff. I can be called upon to help the client map out this information against the context of what they want to do.
  3. Deal with a sense of overwhelm – related to the point above. There is so much information available that it can actually feel disorientating and overwhelming for some poor soul slaving away over a hot Google search. Even highly experienced people benefit from the anchoring effects of working through ideas and information with a mentor.
  4. Assess the value of and make decisions about the efficacy / applicability of information – Clients may indicate that, yes, they understood the information on such and such a website just fine but they didn’t understand how that information could be applied to their particular case, or even if it should. Not all techniques and strategies that can be found on the internet, even the best ones, can be applied to all types of business undertakings.
  5. Deal with different cultures – Because of my background in the arts, tertiary and community sectors I tend to attract other people from these sectors who are not really motivated by making profit, but by making a sustainable income while they do the thing they are passionate about. These guys may find the language, tactics and even ideas of hard-core business websites, and the assumptions and ideologies they suspect inform these things, to be alienating and even dubious. They read articles with titles like ‘The 7 characteristics of successful entrepreneurs’ and read about people who are very different personality types and feel disheartened (I personally think articles like these are nonsense; I like this one). They cavil at mechanisms like branding, associating this word with the most heartless and vacuous type of commodification of one’s values or purpose (author Alison Croggon, not one of my clients, seems to eloquently speak for them in this very good piece). While they do fully understand the necessity of maintaining a healthy cash flow (people who are used to low incomes often do! Funny about that…) it somehow feels limited to talk about profit margins to someone who will measure the usefulness and prosperity of their professional undertakings in terms that may encompass the artistic, the academic and / or the social (why can’t we talk about margins of abundance?). My job, as I see it, is not to change anyone’s mind about any of this. Often I think they are onto something – that their concerns have some merit – and I do share a lot of their values. The approach I take is to strip back the information to its central idea, explain to the client what the person authoring that piece of information was thinking and what the conventional wisdom is. I then suggest that they decide whether they need a similar mechanism in their business to achieve their goals and how they might like to go about this. If they reject it, will there be consequences and do they care about these? As stated above, these people are born innovators – they take ideas, adapt them and try them out. It’s fascinating to watch them take soulless tactics and mash them together into a way of working that achieves practical goals and is a manifestation of a set of values dear to the client.

In my sessions with clients, I could not be less interested in droning on about information that a client can readily find on the internet or via a Meetup group; this strikes me as an exercise in redundancy. I would also feel a bit cheeky to charge money to impart information the client could look up for free. The proliferation of information on the internet is fantastic, the human race (well, those bits of it with access to the internet) has never had the opportunity to be so well, or rapidly, informed. This frees people like me to work with clients on aspects of their work that are unique, creative, values driven and personally meaningful.

I have started up an affordable weekly facilitated conversation around business or project planning for artists, academics, alternative lifestylers and community workers – I wanted something for those people who can’t afford a full consultant’s fee but who are bursting with ideas and need to get started. You can find more information about that here.

I am currently developing a workshop in the area of ideation as part of the innovation process. This will be suitable for people working in the business sector. If you are interested in this then please feel free to contact me via my contact page or leave a comment below.

Consultation needs to be genuine

Consultation needs to be genuine

or…

The power of listening

 During my work history I have heard the term ‘community consultation’ bandied about freely. The meaning of the term should be pretty obvious, and it doesn’t take much cogitating to understand why it is so vital a component for success when planning a policy, strategy or project. If you are wanting to reach or empower a certain community of people and engage their support and/or develop their capacity in some area, you need to really understand them first. You need to do this by talking to them, and developing a variety of means and forums in which to do this that allow this community to speak honestly and without fear or anxiety. You need to be absolutely open minded about what the community has to say, even if they are proving your assumptions wrong or saying things you are uncomfortable hearing.

Listen and truly connect
Listen and truly connect

However, I have seen instances where the community consultation strategies that have been mapped out in funding applications or strategic plans have been carried out in a way that is tokenistic, unthinking or even manipulative. The word ‘consultation’ carries with it connotations of thorough communication and having deep conversations. But I have seen people in charge of running projects who have talked up their ‘community consultation strategies’ in front of their reference groups or Boards and then, in practice, just have a few superficial conversations with some cherry picked community members, fishing for vague statements that suited their own personal agenda. Sometimes I feel as if the words ‘community consultation’ have become weasel words – words that no longer carry any real meaning, words that have been appropriated by managerial or bureaucratic types to mean anything they say they mean.

By carrying out community consultation in a rushed or insincere way, talking at (rather than to) a few bewildered community representatives, these workers or managers rob the community they are supposed to be empowering of the opportunity to be really involved with projects that should engage them. Not being listened to, in the first instance, is extraordinarily disempowering; to then have your presence at some half-baked conversation be appropriated to endorse the planning of a project that has no appeal for you or your community, and to then have that project promoted to you and your community as an opportunity for your development, just adds more layers of insult to deeper layers of injury.

Remember when you’re designing for social change – you’re not necessarily designing for people like you! – Chris Vanstone

What is behind this trend of shallow or insincere attempts at consultation? I am sure that I have seen a couple of people deliberately manipulate the community consultation process so that it gave them answers that furthered their own selfish agendas, but I think the majority of people who stuff it up don’t even know that they are doing it. I think it has to do with the fact that, as a society, much of our history of leadership and organising groups of people has been done in hierarchies, with information and decision making flowing from the top to the bottom. Even well-meaning people can be guilty of riding to the rescue of other folks in such a way that they undercut their own good intentions. Flushed with the confidence of knowing they intend altruism, they can rush in to inflict ‘solutions’ on the beleaguered that arise out of their own assumptions as to what is needed. The problem with this is that these assumptions can be based on a lack of deep understanding, and a feeling of pity rather than empathy. Thus power can continue to be hoarded by the empowered, and denied to the disempowered, and all because of a lack of will to really make the time to talk and listen. Those in authority or vested with societal privilege have got to stop seeing themselves as above or separate from unfortunate or inferior others. Regardless of the sector, the success of group undertakings relies on a flow of knowledge and empowering activity.

Empowering groups: getting a delicate balance of power just right
Empowering groups: getting a delicate balance of power just right

When designing for social change, you must step outside of your own concerns and be prepared to lay aside your own assumptions. Only by adapting your communication methods and really listening to others can you be assured of successful consultation.

I will talk about the importance of community consultation, along with other things central to starting up a project or organisation with social outcomes, as part of my workshop – Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise – on Friday 24 October 2014.

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Ramblings from a self confessed structure freak

Ramblings from a self confessed structure freak

I have always described myself as a ‘structure freak’, that is to say someone who is fascinated by the shape of things and the frameworks we develop around our activities to express our ideas. When I was working as a choreographer I was as intrigued by the challenge of developing the structure of the narrative or flow of impressions of a piece as I was with coming up with the right combinations of movements.

'Sarabande pour Femme' from Receuil De Dances, dance notation by Raoul-Auger Feuillet, pub. 1700. Image sourced from publicdomainreview.org
‘Sarabande pour Femme’ from Receuil De Dances, dance notation by Raoul-Auger Feuillet, pub. 1700. Image sourced from publicdomainreview.org

As much as I am this structure freak so too am I creative, in love with ideas, my own as well as those of others. I started moving into project and business planning and strategizing via working in arts management, where I was supporting other creative minds in realising their projects even when I wasn’t working on my own.

In working with various groups and organisations in different contexts I experienced and witnessed how much power underlying structures could have. “Culture follows structure” (Craig Larman) does the rounds a lot on Twitter, and culture is not the only thing.

But the imagination doesn’t follow any damned thing and new ideas can be odd, awkward, engrossing and compelling things that take some careful handling when they emerge out of the glorious protective sanctuary of someone’s head and start getting manhandled through brainstorming sessions or operational procedures, being judged, all the while, against a context and agenda set by the structures defined by an organisation’s governance model or business strategy.

The trick is to come up with structures that define space into which new ideas can emerge, and then provide a supportive and protective framework within which these new visions can be worked on. If the structures are too rigid, tight or proscribed then any creativity will be squelched; too lax or inconsistently applied then unproductive chaos can ensue.

Getting the balance between structure and creativity can be tricky, especially when by ‘structure’ you could mean governance or business models. These things belong to the world of logic, and can seem to be opposite to the world of creativity (although some of us creative find an organic flow between the two as was the case with my own choreographic practice). I have come across both business people and artists who talk as if the two were mutually exclusive.

There is often a tension between addressing the need for both structure and creativity but I don’t believe that this has to always be an unhealthy tension. The right kind of tension can, itself, be a spark that ignites more innovative thinking and elicits intelligent problem solving. I think the answer lies in thinking deeply about both. Spend the time understanding what the glorious images on that cinema screen inside your head are really trying to tell you. Don’t treat choosing your governance structure or writing your business strategy as a tick the box activity; do your research and think about the ramifications.

My workshop – Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise – is part of the Changemakers Festival. It is free and will take place at 6pm on 24 October 2014. For more information look here; RSVPs are required and you can do that here; to check out the Changemakers Festival program go to their website here. The workshop venue is at Naturalis Clinic, and you can find their website here.

Another of M. Feuillet's beautiful notations
Another of M. Feuillet’s beautiful notations
Yearning for meaning

Yearning for meaning

A couple of weeks ago I was following #TEDatIBM on Twitter, as you do, and this video from youtube was shown on the big screen at one stage:

 

You may have seen it; apparently it’s gone viral and seems to have garnered much admiration. Which is interesting. Obviously most of us are ready to admire people who find original and perhaps even cheeky ways to do things, like putting together a self-made dance clip to replace the traditional resignation letter. But I think that this video has tapped into an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with work felt by too many employees today. Future of work expert Jeremy Scrivens (@JeremyScrivens) has tweeted the statistic that 87% of employees are disengaged from their work; it is stunning to think that this many people are bored, uninspired and perhaps even unhappy with their jobs and / or workplaces.

Plenty of us will know people who find their day to day work routine tedious, or who fret that their talents are not fully utilised or recognised, or who feel alienated by an unsupportive workplace culture, or who perceive that they are bumping their heads against a glass or bamboo ceiling. I have met those, too, who seem to be asking themselves “is this all there is”, who question whether the seemingly endless quest for profit is a fulfilling enough way to spend their working lives. There are also people out there who are worried about the plight of those less fortunate, and who chaff at the idea that their current jobs do nothing to alleviate the suffering or constraints experienced by others.

Image from 'Mr Galliano's Circus' by Enid Blyton
Image from ‘Mr Galliano’s Circus’ by Enid Blyton

I find myself wondering how many of these dissatisfied employees are harbouring what I call “Run and away and join the circus” or “join the foreign legion” type yearnings. Not everyone wants to quit their jobs, and many will want to stay for the security and in the (forlorn?) hope that something will shift in their work conditions to help them bring some sense of meaning back into their lives. But there are those brave folks who would like to make a career shift so that they can do something that engages their heart, mind and souls and who envisage a life in service of deeper inspirations and ennobling values.

NOT a realistic depiction of life in the social enterprise sector, I'm afraid
NOT a realistic depiction of life in the social enterprise sector, I’m afraid

I am thinking about this a lot as I am currently fine tuning an introductory workshop to help people who want to start a social enterprise or community based organisation. During the past year I have encountered people who wish to cross over from the corporate or bureaucratic worlds into the social enterprise and community sectors to run projects or enterprises. They are doing this not just to try something new, but also to explore their talents, express altruism and give meaning to their lives.

I acknowledge that this may not be the path for everyone but I think this is splendid. Instead of giving into feelings of cynicism or pessimism, these people are daring to dream and experiment. They will bring some new energy, enthusiasm, insights and skills into a sector that is facing huge challenges and doing a lot of heavy lifting for our nation at the moment. We will all benefit from their innovations and efforts.

My workshop – Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise – is part of the Changemakers Festival. It is free and will take place at 6pm on 24 October 2014. For more information look here; RSVPs are required and you can do that here; to check out the Changemakers Festival program go to their website here. The workshop venue is at Naturalis Clinic, and you can find their website here.

My new workshop: Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise

My new workshop: Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise

Media Release – Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise

A free workshop for corporate escapees who are contemplating the shift to a career in social entrepreneurship.

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Presented as part of the annual Changemakers Festival, the ‘Getting to the heart of running a social business’ workshop will help people who want to start a social business or community organisation:

  • understand the skills and qualities they can transfer into the community sector
  • gain clarification around their goals
  • get an introduction into legal and organisational structures and funding models
  • develop a hit list of what to do next.

Inspired by mentoring sessions and conversations with corporate escapees who were yearning to make a difference, business and strategic development trainer and consultant Meredith Lewis came up with the idea for this workshop, and felt that the Changemakers Festival was the ideal forum in which to present it.

Social businesses are springing up in a variety of effective, interesting and innovative models. Many people are drawn to work in this area because of the chance to right wrongs, address social imbalance, and of knowing that they have made a real difference in the life of others.

All of the above can be true, of course. But what can go unacknowledged is that setting up and running a social venture can also be challenging, complex, and risky. There are differences between the for-profit and not-for-profit cultures that need to be acknowledged and overcome.

Workshop convenor Meredith Lewis has over 25 years’ experience of working in the arts, creative, tertiary and community sectors including as a project manager and manager of a community organisation. She enjoys working with innovators, and specialises in helping people develop plans and strategies that anchor and promote creative thinking, humane values, and good business.

Naturalis Clinic (www.naturalisclinic.com.au ) is a new holistic health clinic and workshop space in Northcote that offers an array of services. As a business that exists to promote holistic health and wellbeing, it is an ideal venue for this workshop.

Details:

Date: Friday 24 October 2014

Time: 6-7.30pm

Venue: Naturalis Clinic, 9 Langwells Parade, Northcote, phone 03 0039 9662

Cost: Free BUT bookings MUST be made at Eventbrite here

For more information contact Meredith Lewis:

M: 0421 653 325

E: dangerousmeredith@outlook.com

B: dangerousmeredith.wordpress.com

Please also check out the Changemakers Festival Event page on this blog