“It is a bad plan that admits of no modification.”
– Publilius Syrus
Scheduling the monthly review was the first of the concrete specifics of your plan. I suggested a set schedule such as the third Thursday of every month, so you can set the meeting into your calendar ahead of time. Make sure you get that meeting onto the schedules of every person on the team who should attend. Make sure it’s a relatively short but also extremely useful meeting.
Expect resistance when you introduce good planning process into an existing organization. I have several decades of first-hand experience with this. It takes leadership. Some people mistrust planning process because they fear you will use accountability – tracking performance metrics and results – against them. Others mistrust it because of the myth that having a plan means you have to follow it, no matter what.
Take the review session schedule very seriously. You’re the leader. You set priorities. You give it importance. You can use the review schedule to set meetings months in advance, so team members can plan around it and be present. And make sure you’re present too. If you don’t show up, or if you allow others to miss it, then it’s not that important.
The need for leadership is especially important in the beginning. After you have years of history with monthly review sessions, then maybe you can miss an occasional session and trust your team to do it well. But the early meetings are essential.
Standard Meeting Agenda
Review sessions become second nature in time, but as you start with your planning process, the more detail in the agenda, the better. Here are some things to include.
Start every review session with your list of assumptions. That’s why you list them in the plan. Assumptions change often. You don’t build a plan on a set of assumptions and then forget about them, because they are probably changing. So once a month you review assumptions.
Assumptions lead to a key decision. You always deal with the question of when to revise the plan and when to stick to it. If assumptions have changed, then the plan should change. If not, then you look further. Maybe you need to stay the course and maybe not.
You can set some of the main agenda points of the review sessions in advance. Your plan includes milestones, that is, dates and deadlines. Use them to set review session agendas. For example, if your plan includes a milestone for product launch in September, then even in January (several months ahead), you can add that item to the August, September, and October review sessions. In August you check the last details, in September you go over the launch as it’s happening, and in October you review the results and execution.
Review Performance Against Planned Metrics
Reap the benefits of good planning and accountability. Use the review session to share performance metrics, track results, and identify problems, opportunities, and threats. Let there be some peer pressure as key managers share their results.
The most obvious and standard review is the plan vs. actual analysis of financial results. In accounting and finance, the difference between the plan and actual results is called variance, and the exploring it is called variance analysis. This is a very important monthly process. Look at key financial metrics including sales, sales by product or line, direct costs, expenses, profits, balance sheet including assets and liabilities, and of course the cash balance and cash flow.
Remember that performance metrics, accountability, and peer pressure require leadership. You want this to be about good decisions, productivity, and collaboration, not threats or fear. Make sure your managers feel safe bringing up expectations and revising metrics. Encourage them to evaluate metrics often and to bring up problems with metrics ahead of time, not after the fact.
Good planning encourages collaboration. Managers should know that it’s better to bring problems up ahead of time than hide them until after the fact. If the various factors that influence total sales show problems over the summer, you want to know about it, and deal with it promptly. You don’t want to wait until results are bad in October, and then react in November. Instead, in good planning process, managers bring up problems before they happen. Problems are discussed, solutions put in place where possible, and expectations revised. You want to know ahead of time if sales are going to slip, so you can adjust expenses accordingly.
That happens in an atmosphere of collaboration, not criticism. That collaboration should extend to other metrics, beyond just the financials. For example, suppose a plan includes leads generated through an online webinar program. It’s set to generate 500 new leads in October.
However, the marketing team learns in July that some unforeseen development – not something the team could control – will really hurt the attendance of the October webinar, and decrease the expected leads. With good planning process, the problem comes up in the July or August plan review session. The team adjusts both performance metrics and related marketing activities ahead of time. What you don’t want, of course, is the problem being hidden or avoided with no actions taken, and then performance metrics are disappointing for October.
Leadership sets the tone. Problems are supposed to come up. Good management wants to get bad news fast. And collaboration is the rule.
Gathering the Team
Make sure your review sessions include the right people.
Even if it’s just you, a one-person company, you should still do your monthly review sessions. Plan ahead and take the time to actually step away from the daily routine and review your plan, assumptions, and results. And revise your plan as needed.
In a business, the review session should include everybody in the company who has responsibility for executing the plan. Use your judgment. In a startup with just a few people, review sessions might include the whole team. By the time you have 20 people, review sessions probably include five or six. Being at the review session should be both an obligation and a privilege. Don’t include so many people that your meeting is unmanageable. Match your organization structure and your culture.
Plan vs. Actual Analysis
This chapter continues in the next section, about plan vs. actual analysis.