Getting a Grip on Your Annual Planning Process

By Cathy McCullough

As you set your strategic priorities for the upcoming year, remember an important distinction: Your iStock-668218754.jpg“strategic plan” isn’t as important as your “planning process” to get to that plan. An absolute imperative is for you to recognize the business relevance of strategic thinking. Your Annual Plan isn’t just about who’s doing what. Preceding that is what the company aspires to achieve. Strategic thinking is about the company, which puts into context everything else you’re asking people to do in the coming year (especially in the first quarter!). 

Strategic thinking with your team is what your Annual Planning session is really about, as discussions around what’s going well and what’s not going well are paramount. This is why it’s important to give your executive team the time to gather together to discuss, debate, and agree. Doing this also creates a much higher degree of alignment in thinking. 

Questions I frequently hear from executives about their Annual Plans are:

  • Where did all of our great ideas go?
  • Why don’t all those great plans we create ever come to full fruition? What happens?
  • Why did one or two of our strategic priorities do okay, but the rest of them just didn’t ever evolve?

Many times, there’s simply a disconnect between your company’s plan and the strategic implementation of that plan. In time, everybody simply goes back to doing what they’ve always done—and this usually happens in silos.

In my 25 years of consulting with mid-market growth companies, I’ve worked with great planners (who create beautiful strategies for growth but they get eaten alive by their day jobs, which creates a struggle when it comes to implementation of their plan), and I’ve worked with great tacticians (who are amazing managers of day-to-day operations and all the daily tasks that need to get done, but they struggle when it comes to focusing on the bigger picture of their overall strategic intent). Then there are companies that create the semblance of a plan with some loosely woven tactics to support it, but not much ever launches. 

As a result, there’s a lot of frustration, feelings of self-defeat, wondering thoughts, lack of focus, and in time lack of any clarity at all. The natural inclination is to just dwindle back to doing the day-to-day work we’ve always done. And indeed, the day job stuff is like a magnet! It will suck you in almost at will and when that happens, literally everything reverts back to day-to-day tactics.

The question becomes, then: How do we get a grip on this? How do we get better at pulling these two ends of the strategic spectrum together?

Here are 5 tips to help you get a grip on your Annual Planning Process:

1. Get a Grip on 3 Key Things as you Strategically Think together as a team:

(a) What do we want to be when we grow up? (This is your longer-term vision.)

(b) Based on our vision, then, where do we want to be in 3 to 5 years? What will the company look like? What will it be known for? What will make us proud to have accomplished? From this discussion, what are 3 to 5 revenue-injecting 3-5 Year Strategic Plans we should accomplish (see 3 year strategic plan example)?

(c) What, specifically, do we need to start doing today to build the bridge toward our future? What Annual Initiatives should we get done this year? This discussion is important as it helps you know where you want to play! When life calls on you to be adaptive (which it will), you’re better ready to know which direction you need to go. Without a strategic framework, you simply make decisions on what seems like a good idea at the time. It’s the robust discussions in your Annual Planning sessions and Weekly Adjustment Meetings that make the difference.

2. Get a Grip on What Success Looks Like. Set success criteria for everything. Whenever possible, stay away from due dates as success criteria. Someone can produce something by a due date but it doesn’t mean that what was produced is any good. 

3. Get a Grip on Transparency. Use a Dashboard to track your progress, and status it each week. If you don’t track your strategic initiatives, then your strategic intent gets lost in the wilderness of day-to-day, tactical work. Our clients status the Rhythm Dashboards weekly, then review their Dashboard routinely each week. Their Weekly Adjustment Meetings are designed to solve problems, issues, and challenges vs. merely talking about operational items or the ‘status’ of things. (Get a glimpse of the Rhythm Dashboard.)

4. Get a Grip on Specificity. What does “To Be the Best!” mean? What does “To Be Customer Focused” mean? Hash it out; define it; create measurements to identify it. Discuss: How does it serve your brand? Or, “Attend 5 conferences this year!” Push yourself on metrics by asking, “So what will be the business result of having attended these 5 conferences?” 

5. Get a Grip on the Real Value of “Strategic Thinking” followed by “Strategic Planning.” In MIT Sloan Management Review, Sarah Kaplan and Eric Beinhocker note their in-depth study of companies who do strategic planning. Ultimately, their study shared that while important (for a number of reasons), coming up with a plan allowed the team to also learn. Consider thinking, then, of your strategic planning process as a journey vs. as a time to get together and ‘plan.’ Position it to your team as a learning tool that quite by its very nature creates “prepared minds” (to paraphrase Louis Pasteur). By doing this, leaders at all levels are better prepared to make strategic decisions when they crop up in real-time. They’re better able to adjust within a framework vs. grasping at straws. They’re more adaptable and flexible (since most plans simply don’t follow a strictly written script; as much as we might like for life to follow a script, it rarely does). They’re better able to create line of sight around ‘why’ they’re doing what they’re doing today—and how those activities feed the soul of the company. So create the mindset in your company to be a Learning Organization, and use your planning sessions to create incredible plans that allow your company to live, breath, grow, and learn. 

Once you know what you want to do (as a result of your Strategic Thinking as a team), you can create focused and aligned Annual Priorities for the company. From there, you can create the Individual Priorities and Action Steps (your Tactics) needed to get there, and your people will have ‘line of sight’ to why they’re doing what they’re doing. Your strategic discussions allow you to make choices about your company’s future growth and the direction of that growth, and the right kinds of specifics, a healthy culture of collaboration, and framing your planning sessions as learning opportunities set the stage for you to get a tight grip on a proactive approach to your work. Strategies and Tactics allow you to make good choices in real-time, while also keeping everyone in your company focused, aligned, and clear on the value of their work.


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

Editors' Note: This blog originally appeared in May 2017 and has been edited.

Cathy McCullough


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images