A question I often ask at workshops is, "What's the goal for your business three years from now?" Follow-ups are similar, such as, "What are your goals five and ten years from now?"

The answers I get, when I get answers at all, tend to be on the vague side. Also, "making a lot of money" or "being successful" don't count as real answers.

Blank stares and vague answers are hugely problematic because you can't have a plan if you don't have a real goal or goals. How can you consider your financing needs, for example, if you're not sure what you want to accomplish? Sure, some businesses survive and even thrive making decisions by the seat of their pants, but trust me that you don't want to go down that route, especially if you like to sleep at night.

So, I'll ask the question again, throwing out hints about things like ideal net worth sought or a desired lifestyle. That often spurs more detailed thinking.

Go for the goal.

Once legitimate answers arrive, then we get started.

Say the answer is, "I won't be content until I sell my business for X." If that's the case, it's time to take some risks and make decisions that support the goal.

A business looking to make rapid strides needs to be aggressive. In turn, that could mean applying for loans to fund growth. That money could be used to hire additional employees, buy real estate, expand production lines or add or increase advertising/marketing/public relations, among other things.

Alternatively, let's say the answer is, "I'm happy with the business and want to build a long-term sustainable operation that I can ultimately hand over to my children."

That calls for a much more conservative approach. Your funding needs will be less - although they will still exist - and you'll likely want to consider succession planning and exit strategies.

These are bare-bones examples of the planning you'll need to do, but they do demonstrate how goals and plans are invariably tied together.

Make a list, and check it twice.

To further your planning, more detailed steps are probably in order. Creating a list of those steps can be helpful.

Those steps should include a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis of your business. The SWOT method will help you set targets.

A market analysis will prove helpful, as will a review of past performance; you can always learn from both prior successes and failures.

Solicit input from your employees, too. Many entrepreneurs live in an insular world and suffer from tunnel vision. Employees (and even company outsiders) can provide you a perspective that might otherwise be lacking.

There are other steps to take in the planning process, but you should have the general idea by now.

Remember that planning is an ongoing process: Big picture planning doesn't need to be a constant thing, but you'll always be tweaking plans as conditions change.

As for your goals, they're likely to be more concrete, but they, too, can change as things warrant.