In the entrepreneurial world, a business plan is a sacred text. You can't get funding without a solid business plan, and even if you manage to scrape by without one, chances are your organization will be so disorganized you won't have a chance at any significant level of success. Outlining your goals, your vision, your competition, your challenges, and the mechanics that will drive your progress, a business plan tries to predict the course of your first few years of a company's growth.
Your career requires a similar level of attention--you'll need to pick out specific goals, determine your ideal path, identify key challenges and opportunities, and come up with some contingency plans--so why don't more people write out business plans for their careers?
Start out with a mission statement
What is "success" in your mind? It's different for everybody. For some, it's getting to retire by the age of 50. For others, it's making six figures every year. For still others, it's making partner or landing some similar directorial role. The mission statement of your career business plan will explain exactly what success is to you, and a general idea of how you plan to get there (the smaller details can wait until later sections).
For this section, limit yourself to two or three sentences. You want to be as concise as possible without eliminating any of your overall vision.
List your short-term and long-term goals
Once you've established a solid mission statement, take the time to list your long-term and short-term goals. Because your mission statement is established, you should have no trouble distinguishing which of your possible goals are aligned under that vision and which aren't wholly or directly related to it. Your long-term goals are ones that will take a year or more to accomplish, and might only serve in a general context, like "get promoted" or "move to a bigger firm." Your short-term goals will be much more actionable and specific, taking priority and leading into your long-term goals with target accomplishments like "land a 50 percent increase in year-over-year traffic." If you keep to your career business plan, you can return to it regularly and start crossing off your goals as you accomplish them.
List your current and desired skills and credentials
Chances are, most of your long-term goals will require you to have specific skills, which you might already have (or you might not). For example, if one of your goals is to get promoted to a supervisory position, you might need to develop skills in a related peripheral department before you can make the move, such as a lead developer learning more about other programming languages. This section of your career business plan will help you figure out exactly what you need, have, and need to get to reach your short-term and long-term goals. In a way, this functions as a separate goal list that caters specifically to your skills and credentials. Similarly, you can return to it and cross things off as you learn or develop them.
Describe your operational approach
One of the most important sections of a traditional business plan is the "operations" detail, where entrepreneurs discuss the ins and outs of how they will manage their business, including who they will hire, when they will hire, what roles will need to exist, and what policies, processes, and procedures will be instated. Your career "operations" section will be far less detailed and less strict, but it will still need to outline how you intend to operate. Will you focus on teamwork or prioritize individual efforts? Will you initialize your own projects or stick to exceling at what's assigned to you? These choices will depend on your ultimate vision.
Note your key challenges and opportunities
In businesses, challenges come from competition and weaknesses in the model, and opportunities come from circumstances that can be taken advantage of. In your career, challenges will come from difficulties at the firm, competition from other individuals, and changing landscapes of your industry. Opportunities will come from position openings, economic changes, and new clients. Take the time to speculate about possible challenges and opportunities--not only as they exist for you today, but how they might exist for you over the course of the next several years.
Identify potential problems and contingency plans
Some of your challenges might evolve into full-fledged problems; for example, you might get laid off or suddenly find yourself unable to work. These scenarios will pop up no matter how much you try to avoid them or ignore them. It's your job to think as far ahead as you can and prepare for as many possibilities as you can. The more contingency plans you list out (such as including alternate career paths), the better prepared you'll be for an inevitable hurdle.
Writing out a full-fledged business plan for your career will take some time, but for most people, the investment is worth it. You'll have a go-to document to help guide your course; when you encounter a challenge, you'll have contingency plans to rely on. When you aren't sure about a particular direction, you can compare it to your original "mission statement." And of course, you can always go back and update it as you grow and change as a professional. The key is to have a reasonable backbone to help guide and support your progress.