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A template to accelerate your planning process for next quarter.

Let’s assume it’s the end of 2020, and you’re heading into Q1 2021. You have a team, and you all pretty much know what you’re doing. And let’s assume it’s dawning on you that Jan 1 will be here before you know it, and you haven’t really formalized a plan for taking on next year (or quarter) by storm.

You’re not alone. For many teams, yearly planning can drift well into the year they’re planning for. As we’re all still adjusting to working from home, we can’t book a room for 8hrs and bring in lunch and whiteboard together. This year, it’s different.

Let’s be clear. The only reason we even have annual planning meetings is because it’s usually tied to financial cycles. Strategy doesn’t naturally “start” in one month or another. Buying doesn’t reset on New Year’s Eve; it’s ongoing. However, many of us are still beholden to the annual planning ritual. So here’s how to get the most out of it quickly.

First off, what do you need to get out of a planning session? If I’m a team lead, I want to know what our priorities are, how our activities will achieve our goals, and generally what the plan looks like in practice. Here is a template (there’s a downloadable version near the bottom of this post) for how to run a successful planning session, get your team in sync and get some momentum come January. Use this as a starting point: I don’t know your exact situation, so you’ll need to take the useful bits and alter the rest.

Assumptions: 

  • Team of 6-7 or so. 
  • This year, you’ll be on Zoom.

Recommendations: 

  • 2 x 3hr blocks, preferably on consecutive mornings when people are sharp. 
  • Capture everything; don’t let it be a “good meeting” with nothing to show for it. This is about documenting your teams’ best thinking so you can use it in a few weeks. 
  • Use a virtual whiteboard for participatory exercises and real time notes.

DAY ONE

:15min Intro

Briefly align on the purpose of the meetings and outcomes. Then dive in.

:30min Align on Goals

Align on the company goals. Maybe they’re top of mind, or maybe they’re less clear. But take a moment to write them down to ground the team in the greater outcomes.

Then align on your department goals. Again, if you don’t have them written down, take a few minutes to do so. … And if your team is smaller within a large enterprise department, you should also write down your team goals. Be specific. If you know KPIs, list them.

These goals can be overall evergreen goals, or they can be time-bound like annual goals or quarterly goals. Whatever makes the most sense for your organization.

The gist here is, What does success look like for Q1? Write it all down for reference throughout this work.

:30min Know your Success Factors / Inhibiting Factors

What are the factors that will help you succeed? Do you have a budget? Do you have champions and advocates? Do you have strong partners? Are there category dynamics or macro-trends that will be wind at your back? Do you have time, and unique talents? Do you have experience or learnings from last year? Discuss, and write them all down.

Now, what are the factors that will add to your challenge? Budget? Dissenters? Weak partners? Category dynamics or trends? Any big unknowns you’re facing? Discuss, and write it all down.

:05min Break

Take a bio break. You’re almost halfway through your first session.

:60min Learn from Last Q1

Do a retro; talk about what happened. If this isn’t your first year, you may have some vital learnings from last year. If you’re planning Q1, don’t do a retro of Q4 (unless there’s was a huge thing that happened that you really need to unpack). For a lot of companies, Q4 is unique, and Q1 was a long time ago. So refresh your memories, and discuss:

  • What worked?
  • What didn’t?
  • What would/will we do differently?

Write it all down. Laugh, cry, get inspired.

:30min Preview the Coming Quarterly Calendar

Get out a visual of the calendar. Usually this is a bit of a wake up call, since you’re looking at actual dates, and you stop thinking about “next year” as some far off time frame. Q1 is 90 days long, 12 weeks. Then it’s done. So get out a calendar and talk about it. Write down every thought from the team.

  • What are key days/dates for the team?
  • How do you think about chunking it down? (into weeks? Months? Every third Thursday? Are Monday’s unique? Your business cycles are your own, so make note of what happens when, and why.)

Don’t start planning too much just yet. Just note the important days. That will start the wheels turning for everyone. If ideas pop out, write them down and save them.

Finally, give everyone a bit of homework for the next session (hopefully the following morning): “Bring in one big opportunity area we can innovate in.” This will be specific to your products, or services, or hours, or delivery, or consumers, or events – this is about the work you do, and identifying exciting areas to try new things. Do not come up with solutions. I repeat, it’s important that people do not come up with solutions here. They are simply describing a part of your work that holds the opportunity to do something innovative. There’s a whole separate process for coming up with solutions. This is about finding where to push. It’s a quick exercise, but make it mandatory. You’ll use it tomorrow.

It’s been a long 3hr Zoom call. You’re done for the day.

DAY TWO

:15min Review Day One

Briefly scan over the work the team did yesterday. Don’t go into detail, but acknowledge how much ground you’ve covered. This will give everyone a reminder of what you discussed, and add continuity from one day’s work to the next.

:60min Draft Three Core Initiatives

Most teams do hundreds of things; successful teams know why they’re doing it. Use this time to discuss the activities you know you’ll be spending your time on in Q1. These can range from mundane maintenance to inspiring fun stuff, but you can predict a lot of the kind of work to come. In this exercise, the team will generate lists of “stuff” they’ll spend time on, and you’ll cluster the activities into three core initiatives they support or drive toward. You may already have a three-pronged approach to your department’s work, in which case, this is an opportunity to add detailed activities (what goes into making that happen), and perhaps re-framing or re-phrasing your buckets – adjusting them so they are fresh and make sense.

Why three? Three is simple; people can easily remember them. It provides focus. And it’s enough. If the team can create three meaningful outcomes, you’ve had a good quarter. Maybe you really need four, but see if you can whittle it down.

I have no idea what your team spends time on, so this is really up to you all to fill this list. It doesn’t need to be inspiring, but it should reflect reality. I’ll give you some examples here to illustrate the level of specificity that will be useful here, people may say things like, “managing XYZ partner” because that will take them time and it needs to be done. Write it down. Or “processing ABC paperwork,” or “training sessions,” or “sales calls,” or “desk research,” or “design,” or “RFPing (for something).” As more people mention more activities, it’s the facilitator’s job (yours) to gradually cluster them into three buckets – your core initiatives that each activity supports. Label the three lists; you can label them by outcomes, or by business line, or by internal/external, whatever works for you. Just check yourself that the labels support your goals, because these labels will stick.

You’ll end up with three columns, each with a label of the initiative name, and lists of activities under each. Set this aside, we’ll come back to it.

:05min Break

Take a bio break. Stretch.

:60min Review Homework

Finally, the fun part (hopefully). One by one, have each person share their homework with the group. The question was, “What’s one big opportunity area we can innovate in.” The ideas will come in different shapes and sizes, and that’s okay. It shows the strength of divergent thinking on your team. Some people might have written a paragraph about their opportunity, and some might have written one word. As people share their ideas, take notes, and gently right-size each idea. You can elaborate on the one-word answers, and you can pare down the verbose ones. 

Again, this is not about coming up with solutions. If you hear someone come up with a solution – like a new product idea, or a new price point, or a new ad, or a specific new thing – don’t write down the idea. Instead, write down what the idea is working on, like “a new version of the product” or “a new pricing model” or “a new ad campaign.” You’re writing down the opportunity area, not actual ideas. That will come later. 

Once all the ideas are on the board, briefly ask each person to pick their favorite (that’s not their own), and say why.

:30min Time Takers vs. Difference Makers

Now the team is going to look at the day’s work: the lists of activities in the three columns, and the list of areas to innovate. The team is going to identify the biggest “Time Takers” and the biggest “Difference Makers.”

Time Takers are activities that take a lot of time but don’t contribute much to your goals. It’s the busy work, or the clunky processes. Oftentimes these are time-sensitive and seem urgent, but ultimately it’s just a process and not creating impact directly.

Difference Makers are the items that contribute to your goals a lot. These are initiatives that you point back to after they’re done and tell your boss about. These are super important to make time for, and too often they get deprioritized in the moment, especially if they don’t have an immediate deadline.

Each person on your team takes four dots, or stars, or emojis – two green and two red. The drill is this; each person independently evaluates the items you’ve generated and listed today, and puts a red dot on the two biggest Time Takers. They can put a dot on an item on either of the two lists. 

Then each person independently picks out the biggest Difference Makers, and puts a green dot on the two items they think could make the biggest difference toward your department goals.

At the end of this dot-voting exercise, you may see some themes. Maybe there’s a cluster of red dots around a couple of items. Maybe there’s a cluster of green dots around a couple of items. 

Ask each person what they put dots on and why, two minutes each. This drill should help you all align around how to spend your time in the coming quarter. Maybe you find a way to automate or accelerate the big Time Takers. Maybe you put weekly meetings on the calendar to work on the biggest Difference Makers. The team can work to address each:

  • How might we minimize effort on Time Takers?
  • How might we maximize effort on Difference Makers?

:30min Assign Next Steps

  • Make a radiator (a sign within perpetual view) of your company goals, team goals, and three core initiatives
  • Assign 2-3 people to work on the Time Takers (reduce) and Difference Makers (increase)
  • Assign 2-3 people to work on the Success factors (create or amplify) and Inhibiting factors (reduce, mitigate or eliminate).

That’s it! Two meetings, and you’ve covered a lot of foundational planning to make the coming quarter a success. Let’s check our work. What have we planned?

  • What the priorities are
  • How the activities will lead to the goals
  • Generally what the plan looks like in practice
  • Assigned action items to keep the ball rolling

Get your template here:

This template gives you a process to quickly map activities to goals and some specific exercises that will accelerate your planning sessions – take what works for you to orient your team’s effort toward clear value creation.

If you want to tailor an approach for your team, we can facilitate, just give us a call or shoot us an email.

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David Yeend is a Director of Innovation at Three Five Two. He’s an INFP, identical twin, and lover of indie rock, living in Atlanta with his wife and two children.