Annual Planning: 9 Tips to Focus & Align Your Team With a Great Plan

By Patrick Thean

    Wed, May 2, 2018 @ 09:00 AM Annual & Quarterly Planning, Accountable Leaders & Teams

    It’s time to slow down and develop a world class execution plan for next year. When we don’t slow down to plan our execution, our teams don't end up being focused on the right things, leading to mistakes and rework, and ultimately smacking our profit with a 2-by-4! How strong is your execution this year?

    I ask these questions to check if you had a good and strong plan this year:

    • Does your team know what the company is supposed to achieve this year?
    • If your team does know what the company is focused on, do they know their roles in making that happen every quarter?
    • Do they have clear success metrics so they can tell if they are on track or not?

    Communication-Gap

    Communication Gap

    A good annual planning session should get you three things:

    • Great communication between your teams to avoid a communication gap as pictured above.
    • Strong alignment, meaning that they don’t compete for resources or step on each other inadvertently as they work hard to achieve their priorities.
    • Leading indicators to let you know that you and your team are on track.

    We sometimes confuse execution planning with the common term strategic planning. That is why I prefer to dissect the common practice of strategic planning into two separate and distinct parts: strategic thinking and execution planning. Strategic thinking is about figuring out what you should do. Execution planning is about figuring out how to get it done. It’s your “doing plan.”

    Oftentimes leaders focus only on strategy during annual planning sessions and forget to take the important step of working through an execution plan. It is easy to forget. After all, it is more fun to work on strategy. It’s hard work to think about how to get the strategy accomplished. It is even harder work to hold your teams accountable for doing the work that achieves the strategy. This hard work must be done if you want your strategies to give birth to rewarding results. Planning together with your teams is part of the formula to achieving great communication and strong alignment.

    So if you have not already done so, it is time to schedule your annual planning session so that you can go into 2015 with a strong and confident execution plan.

    Here are 9 tips to help you in your planning session:

    Tip 1: Begin with the end in mind. Be clear, be focused, be successful!

    Tip 2: Create a great agenda. Your agenda drives the success of your meeting. Let everyone know ahead of time what topics will be discussed so that they can come prepared to engage in discussion.

    Tip 3: Come prepared. Every executive needs to come prepared to participate fully in all the discussion topics. Of course this can only happen if you follow Tip 2!

    Tip 4: Use a facilitator. It is very difficult to participate and facilitate, especially if you are the CEO.  Ask yourself, “Do I want to facilitate, or do I prefer to participate and engage strongly in the discussions?” If participation is more important (and it usually is), bring in an outside facilitator. I have often found that CEOs who facilitate their own planning sessions unknowingly intimidate their team members and limit their participation in the discussion.

    Tip 5: Set the right tone. Begin every session by having each team member share good news or appreciation. Beginning on a positive note will improve participation.

    Tip 6: Be effective versus efficient. Spend the time necessary to have the right few discussions. Don’t rush your planning session by focusing on getting through all the topics on your agenda. Instead, choose to be effective. It is better to have fewer discussions, with the entire team understanding clearly what the decision and outcome is for each.

    Tip 7: Use a parking lot. Tangents to the important topics are inevitable. Use a parking lot to log these tangents for a later discussion. It allows the team members who bring them up to know that they will not be forgotten. Then their brains are free to focus on the topic at hand.

    Tip 8: Eat the baby elephants. Every company has elephants in the room. The fewer the better! These are the topics that the team tries to avoid because they are afraid to address them. Lots of emotional energy is wasted over the years skirting around these topics. Once upon a time these were baby elephants. If you see a baby elephant surface during your sessions, take the time to address it. Eat your baby elephants before they grow up into big seven-ton elephants!

    Tip 9: Cut if off when the team is tired. You won’t get good decisions when people are too tired to think. If you have had intense discussions, everybody will be exhausted toward the end of the day. End the meeting on a victory. Don’t “power through” the agenda. Have a backup plan to spend some time the following day finishing up if necessary. And if you are making big decisions, think about them overnight and have a brief discussion the next day to finalize them.

    One more thing… one extra tip for CEOs. Spend more time listening than speaking. Be truly curious and listen actively. Be the last one to provide input in the discussions. 

    Free Annual Planning Guide - Rhythm Systems

    Looking for more Annual Planning information to help get you started? Check out our additional resources:

    How to Conduct an Annual Planning Meeting

    Annual Planning Playbook: 5 Steps to Create a Winning Annual Plan

    How CEOs Can Avoid High-Cost Mistakes in Annual Planning

    Rhythm Systems Annual Planning Resource Center

    Annual Planning Best Practices

    Editor's Note: This post was originally published November 4, 2014, and has been updated.

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