See the Forest, but not the Trees? Try Sticky Note Action Planning!

Launching a business is exciting. And while many entrepreneurs can clearly see the big picture, they sometimes have a hard time making sense of all of the little tasks. The homework I assign my clients is to prepare a “critical path” – a list of all of the tasks, big and small, that need to be completed to put their new ideas into action.

Many entrepreneurs love sticky notes. We write our dreams and ambitions on them. Unfortunately writing multiple ideas, on various different topics, on little scraps of paper, can make us think more about endless possibilities than allowing us to focus on what specific actions we need to take.  In this exercise, we embrace our love of sticky notes to make a dynamic, interactive, low tech and highly effective action plan.

You will need: a large sheet of flipchart paper or a large empty wall, small sticky notes (1” x 1” work well), large sticky notes (2” x 2”) and markers.

  1. Write the goal – While creating an action plan, clearly articulating the final goal is essential. Where is this action plan taking you? I like using the goal of “making my first sale”. I feel that making the first sale is a clear threshold separating a business in planning from a business that actually exists.
  2. Milestone brainstorming– Start by thinking about the big picture. Don’t sweat the small stuff yet. In your mind there is likely a massive list of things you know you need to achieve. Start by writing them out onto large sticky notes. You should put only one milestone on each sticky note. Getting the ideas out is more important at this point than the order in which they need to be achieved or the little tasks that go into each one.
  3. Task to milestone brainstorming– Once you have a clear list of all of the milestones you need to meet you can start to list all of the tasks required to complete each milestone. Continue to brainstorm by writing each of the individual tasks, no matter how small, onto a little sticky note. Gather the task sticky notes around the milestone identified in the earlier step.
  4. Prioritize and eliminate – You may find at this point that there are tasks and milestones that are not as important to our success as you originally thought. Taking time to eliminate or defer items that are not going to directly impact your ability to enter your business into the market may allow you to reach your goal faster and with less unnecessary expense.
  5. Order the tasks for each milestone– This is the step where your brainstorming starts to form a plan. For each individual milestone, post the tasks in order immediately to the left of the milestone. Picture this as your path to achieve the milestone on the large sticky.
  6. Order the groups of milestones– Now that you know what milestones need to be met, and what tasks should be completed to meet them, you can think about the logical order in which you should take action on the tasks. Picture your plan as a timeline with earlier times on the left and later times towards the right. Place the tasks that must be completed first to the left of the tasks that must be completed second.  Some milestones will be dependent on others, meaning the tasks can’t start until the previous milestone’s tasks are completed. An example of this may be opening a bank account and registering a business name. The bank simply won’t open an account without a business licence in hand, therefore opening a bank account is dependant on registering the business. If two sets of tasks are not dependant, and can happen at the same time, they may be placed on the sheet with one on top of the other, not requiring the first to be achieved before starting the second.
  7. Assign budgets and resources– Some of the tasks you identify will have a cost associated to them. Look through your plan to see at which points you will need money, and allocate a cost appropriately by adding it to the sticky note. You could also write any resources required on the note, perhaps the name of the person assigned or a tool that you need.

This method of sticky note action planning is great for working in groups. Team members can reach into the plan and try out scenarios. You can shift entire elements of a project to be earlier or later in the path as new ideas are added. You can change assignments and budgets.

The tasks to start a business can be overwhelming, and trying to think of the tasks in order can be confusing. Following these steps can help to make a clear map. No matter how many tasks are on your plan, all you have to do is start at the left, and follow your plan to the right. You only have to take on one task at a time.  Use the time to do it well.

If you have a great idea for a business, and need help putting together your action plan, call for a free one-on-one consultation with a small business consultant at the Halton Region Small Business Centre. You can also follow us on Twitter @haltonecdev and find us on Facebook at

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