Over the last 25 years, I have launched 8 different businesses, mostly in the sales and marketing space, and when I reflect on those businesses I often think about Goldilocks. As an entrepreneur or business leader, we have to make many decisions and often the results of those decisions “just don’t feel right.” My biggest challenge with my first few businesses was tied to my lack of business experience and specifically my lack of focus. It was often because I didn’t have a strategic plan to follow and would go from day to day fighting fires. Whoever on my team was concerned the most or whatever task seemed the most important is how I set priorities. Looking back I want to smack my younger self in the head as it was a beyond insane way to run a business.
I have learned a lot along the way and finally smartened up. I made it a top priority when I launched StringCan that I was going to take all the good, bad and unfortunately ugly lessons learned from the prior businesses and create an organization that felt “just right.” And to do that I needed to set a long term vision and plan, and reflect on it every year to make necessary adjustments. The adjustments are not made only in my long term vision, but also with the process on how we create our annual plan and SMART goals. When I begin the annual planning process with my team I start with a research phase and look for opportunities to improve our process before we get too far into it. For example, every year we often have a new theme and or big gap we want to work on and based on that theme or gap, we will further customize the planning process to ensure we address the necessary topic(s).
I am excited to report that this past year the process and results was near perfect and so far into the 2nd month of the year I can tell that our hard work planning for 2019 is already paying off with bringing on awesome new clients, earning a high Net Promoter Score (NPS) with our current clients and positive internal feedback on working at StringCan from our amazing team.
Let me share with you some of the highlights of our process, which we call the 6R Planning Process, with the hopes that you can include some of these goal setting steps in your own company or even personal planning. I mention personal because I follow a very similar process for my family every year too. If you want to learn more about how to apply this planning process to your home life you can check out my book, Family 2.0.
Keep in mind, that even though our team completes this process during December of every year, there is no reason you can’t follow this process at any time during the year. I’ve facilitated these conversations with many businesses at random times during the year so please do not feel you need to wait to December to do this. I will now go into detail for each step of our process:
The 1st step, Research, starts approximately 6-8 weeks prior to annual planning. The goal here is to collect the relevant data with financials, client satisfaction feedback, competitors, productivity analysis, client profitability, organization structure, partner feedback, roles and responsibilities and other important factors that are unique to your business.
I remember the first StringCan annual planning process at the end of our 2nd year in 2011, and with that plan I did all the work myself, mainly because our team was so busy and I thought it was my job to do this level of work. I presented my vision for 2012 and pretty much dictated the plan to my team. It should probably come to no surprise that within a few months of implementing that plan by a very loyal and capable team it started to fail and become quickly unrealistic.
I learned that if my team did not help create the annual plan there would be less accountability and or smart insights into the path we were going to take to accomplish our BHAG’s (Bigger Hairy Audacious Goals). And this is why I strongly recommend that you have at least a few, if not all, of your team members involved in this and every step of the 6R Planning Process.
What was exciting about the annual planning process that we completed in December 2019, is during the research phase I talked with our team about our process the year before to get their thoughts on what we should consider doing differently. The team gave me feedback that even with a lot of advance planning trying to accomplish so much in 1-2 days, especially in or near our office, was distracting and exhausting. I took that feedback seriously and for the first time we decided to get out of Phoenix and we rented an amazing home in Sedona and spent 3 days together. Not only was it so much fun bonding together, especially playing hysterical games such as You Don’t Know Jack or Fibbage, but we had a lot of flexibility in getting through our agenda knowing we had a few days to work through.
The 2nd step, Reflect, is focused on reflecting on the good, the bad, and the ugly of the past year. For this step, each of our team members spent 2-3 weeks before our annual planning retreat, self reflecting on how the company is performing, as well as, how they are individually doing with their department and personal goals.
Our Director of Operations, Sarah Hiller, created a template that we all followed to capture applicable information and individually we each created a presentation on what we wanted or needed to share. I feel that it’s important to look in the rear view mirror with an objective lens to uncover issues, as well as, opportunities. In addition, having each team member do this individually removes bias and gives them each a chance to share their unique perspective. Yes, this is time consuming but an extremely important part of the process.
As each person is presenting, I recommend a pre assigned note taker captures all the obstacles and opportunities on post-it notes and stick them on a wall or poster for later analysis and conversation. After all team members finish their Reflection presentation, all obstacles and opportunities are then sorted, categorized, and prioritized for SMART goal setting in the next day.
At our last retreat after a long but productive day, our team spent the evening together at an amazing Italian Restaurant, called Dahl & Di Luca. It was very special for me because it was the restaurant I got engaged to my wife, Rachel, and really enjoyed spending that time with our leadership team. To make an already amazing night even better, Chef Lisa Dahl came by to say hi. I might have squealed a little when she came over as I am a huge fan of Chef Dahl!
The 3rd step, Reenergize, is focused on allowing each team member the opportunity to share what motivates them, as well as, where they see the future for our organization. This year we leveraged vision boards, thanks to the suggestion by Sara Dietz, one of our account directors, to give team members a chance to share their story and create an inspirational tone for the day.
Each leadership team member answered specific questions for their 3 year vision board to inspire what needs to happen in 2019 to achieve the long term goals by 2022. Since vision boards take a lot of time, they were created about 2-3 weeks prior to the planning retreat and then presented. We made sure we had time in the agenda to allow each attendee to ask questions & spark topics for ‘19 goal setting. I was blown away by how vulnerable and transparent my team was and I will admit I got very choked up going over my vision board, as well as, hearing all their ideas.
The 4th step, Refocus, is designed to make sure that each team member is aligned around the goals and objectives for the year, as well as, give us the time to create a more detailed plan for the first quarter of the year. What I have learned is that team members get very frustrated after all this hard work if there is not a clear action plan and assigned owners for each task, especially what needs to be accomplished over the next few months.
In this step, typically the last day of the retreat, we review the obstacles and opportunities uncovered in Reflection, and aspirations or vision presented in Reenergize, and then focus on creating both the strategic and tactical plan on how to accomplish those goals. Owners of each task, and action items, are defined for each goal or rock with a specific timeframe and deadline so everyone leaves the retreat clearly understanding who is taken care of what priorities.
The 5th step, Recommendations, is designed to give each team member a chance to digest all that was discussed during the planning retreat and finalize the details. This step usually happens about 1 week after the planning retreat and can be as short as a 30 to 60 minute meeting. Our team leverages the EOS system and after we got back into the office we inputted all our rocks (goals) and milestones into Traction Tools, the software we use to run the EOS efficiently.
The 6th and final step, Reevaluate, is one that is intentionally never ending. I, and many other business owners, are often great at creating annual plans but unfortunately don’t look at them again till a year later when the process starts all over again. How crazy is that? Our team makes sure that we are always Reevaluating our plan at least every 3 months.
On a quarterly basis, our team takes 1 day off from work to evaluate our agreed upon plan. We run through the entire 6R Planning Process over 1 day vs. 4 days so it’s a more consolidated process. We review how the past quarter went, the status of our annual goals, as well as, our updated priorities for the next quarter. Because we leverage EOS, on a weekly basis our team is meeting for about 1 ½ hours to check in on all our goals / rocks and any issues that needs to be addressed.
And there you have it, our planning process detailed in all its glory. We are very proud of this process and yes it can be exhausting but at the same time it’s very inspiring. I am confident that our planning process is one of the reasons our team is so aligned and very much enjoy working together. When tough issues come up, as they do in every business, we are so comfortable in hashing it out because there is a strong level of trust. I hope you found our process of value. If you want to explore this further to see if myself or one of our team members can help facilitate this process for your business, please reach out to us or share your thoughts below in the comments.