Preparing to succeed
As the saying goes: Fail to plan, plan to fail. Although we help our clients plan their business, why do some accountants struggle with planning ahead in their own practices?
"I think it’s fair to say that when we talk about accountants and their ability to plan, it can bring to mind the plumber’s leaky tap,” says Alastair Barlow, founder of accountancy practice flinder.
As a managing partner of a fast-growing practice, Barlow accepts that while there are some fi rms that focus seriously on planning and do it very well, “my general feeling as a whole is that it’s done very poorly, and the reason for that I think is because they are so focused on servicing their clients that they forget the need to do it for themselves.”
A lack of planning, Barlow argues, is one of the reasons that accountancy fi rms don’t scale (not to be confused with simply growing).
“Scaling is having the infrastructure in place to take the next step,” Barlow says. They fail to take on board that they are the “engine of the business”. They don’t say to themselves: ‘We have got a scalable business model around us and therefore we’re the ones who look at what resources we need and what the stretch planning cycle looks like’.
James Abbott, director at Abbott Moore in Essex, agrees.
“I suspect there will be lots of people like me that haven’t been able to plan long term, particularly over the last 18 months,” he says. One explanation for that, he believes, is that accountants are often geared into looking at short-term issues that focus on detail. “Whereas, the blue-sky thinking doesn’t fit into that. We’re more comfortable with black and white and it’s something I struggle with - I have to force myself to think longer term.”
But good planning can bring some valuable certainty into an increasingly unpredictable world. To steer his practice more efficiently, Abbott has started by more targeted goals. “A good example of that is our 90-day plans – they’re detailed, short term, and feature a list of things to deal with. And we know we can deliver on them,” he says.
Conversely, Abbott’s longer-term plans look at things differently, and focus on capitalising on any spare time and resources.
“If we find ourselves with sufficient resource, then I have a list of projects that I know we should do that we haven’t had the time to look at. So we [manage] short term but have a plan B if things don’t work out the way we expect.”
Those projects, he says, are almost inevitably technology related.
“It’s things like expanding the app stack, and because we deliver a lot of our services online it will focus on technology.” For Pam Phillips at DeJong Phillips, marrying up the short and long term means applying a structural approach to planning.
“It’s not rigid, and we do have flexibility, but we do have to have a structure,” she says, explaining that for her the general planning process involves both annual sessions to look at prospects at a high level, alongside quarterly strategy sessions. “Those sessions will usually take half a day, depending on how much we have to go through, to figure out what we have to achieve in the next 90 days and then we make sure that there’s a manager tasked with actually delivering those.”
Phillips’ senior team then have a weekly management meeting with a set agenda.
“That will have topical stuff that’s just come up, resource issues and all the usual stuff but it also has a section on there for how we track against these big calls.”
Step by step
Alastair Barlow has made improving planning a priority.
“Every year in October we set what the strategy looks like, we set what the budget looks like, and then set what resources there are. We have a month-by-month cash flow and P&L budget and we religiously look at that every single month - I will look at that multiple times a week versus actual results.”
Barlow’s approach involves developing quarterly objectives that are published and known by everyone in the business.
“And we all look at those every month and we measure ourselves against them, and understand where we need to put extra eff ort; and then there will be ‘sprint objectives’ that we might put in if we see an opportunity. Crucially, he says, all plans must be ‘live documents’ to be adapted.
“This isn’t just me looking into a closed meeting saying: ‘What do we want to achieve? Okay, let’s put it on a shelf’. This is about us going and communicating with the entire team and getting everyone involved and having it part of their action plan as well.”
Christian Doherty is a freelance journalist.