The Scalable Planning Process

How We Do Strategic Planning At The Scalable Company

Quarterly planning is an essential, but at times confusing process.

Here’s how we do it at The Scalable Company…

Scalable Planning Explained

We all know how important planning is to set the stage, scale a business, keep your sanity, and prevent a TON of confusion. No doubt, you’re probably doing some version of planning already, but I encourage you to stop and think… how effective are your planning strategies?

If you’re anything like me, your version of planning usually came in the form of annual planning.

But here’s the thing…

Annual Planning Sucks

Most of the annual plans I’ve put together in my time as a leader have turned out to be, well, garbage. And at this point I’m convinced it’s not just my fault.

Here’s 3 reasons why annual planning sucks:

1. Annual planning is unpredictable

Without fail, every time I made it into March or April. my annual plan was no longer relevant. For whatever reason, be it a new competitor, a super great sale that changed my budget fundamentally, or… ahem… a massive pandemic 👀 , my plan just didn’t apply anymore.

The reality is there is just too much “future” to try and account for when planning 12 months at a time. And unless you have a whole team dedicated to revisiting, updating, and shifting that plan, there’s no way it can stay up to date.

2. Annual planning can be unfocused

When you have a whole 12 months ahead of you, it can feel like you have lots of time to “get on track” or “catch up.” But before too long, you get behind on your benchmark goals and your whole plan is shot.

Believing that myth that “it will get done later” can really shoot you in the foot. Even if you start off strong, chances are in 3 months, you and your team will feel burnt out trying to achieve this huge, year-long goal.

3. Annual planning is uninspiring

Inspiration strikes in short-term and long-term goals. But 1 year is kind of the “Spork” of time frames—not quite as effective as a spoon or a fork.

Malcom Gladwell says that it takes 10,000 hours to master a goal. That’s about 3–5 years if you’re working a typical 35–40-hour work week. That means a year just isn’t enough time to cast a big vision and actually achieve it!

That’s why we like to make 3–5-year vision goals. But what about those tactical, action-based goals that bring us closer to achieving that vision?

Here at Scalable, we now make our action plans in 90-day increments.

Why 90-Days?

Quarterly planning is way more effective when it comes to making and achieving action-based goals.

  • It’s predictable: We typically know what’s gonna be going down in the next 3 months, and what our teams are capable of achieving in that timeframe
  • It’s focused: With fewer projects and less time to waste, our teams are more focused, more enthusiastic, and more efficient with the work they do
  • It’s flexible: With 4 “reps” of planning in 1 year, there are way more opportunities to pivot your plans effectively without feeling like you wasted a whole year on 1 goal that went sideways
  • It’s urgent: With a shorter timeframe, that feeling of momentum (when everyone in the office is on a collective sprint to meet the goal) isn’t just reserved for November and December. With 90-day planning, you basically get 4 Christmases a year!

Sounds good, right?

Here’s How You Can Implement Quarterly Planning

Quarterly planning is a 2-phase system at Scalable.

Phase 1 is planning
: every quarter the leadership team has an offsite, where we all get together in 1 room and plan out the next quarter using our Quarterly Planning Canvas.

Phase 2 is review and approval: once we have a plan in place, we run through an approval process that incorporates all levels of our business.

Let’s start by reviewing Phase 1.

After playing around with a few different versions, we found that this Quarterly Planning Canvas was the best way to represent all the essential elements you’ll need to plan for each quarter.

You can download it here, or under the resources section

If you’ve got a bigger leadership team, sometimes it’s easier to draw this chart out on a whiteboard so you have room to ideate and develop your plan.

Let’s walk through the 5 Steps to fill out your Quarterly Planning Sheet

Step 1: Clarify the Time Period

Your first step is to fill out your company name and the time period. This is mostly for housekeeping purposes, as you may have multiple business units. You’ll want to fill out this sheet for each business unit and for your overarching holding business (if you have one).

Step 2: Choose a Theme

The next step is to decide on your overarching theme.

Don’t confuse this with your goal. Think of your theme as your battle cry or slogan. The theme is meant to set the stage for your quarter and rally your troops with something they—and you—can get behind.

Here’s a few examples…

  • “Launch the New”: for times when you might be launching a new product/service
  • “Systemize and Scale”: for times when maybe you’re lagging behind and need to come up with some systems and processes to help scale your efforts
  • “Get Profitable”: for times when you’ve already grown a strong customer base and the next step is usually to start presenting offers that turning a profit
  • “Survive”: for when times get tough and the best you can plan for is just surviving

You theme is there as a way to anchor all the plans, goals, and metrics you set for that period.

If you can’t come up with a theme right away, skip it and come back after you have completed the rest of this sheet. Often times, your theme doesn’t become apparent until after you’ve thought through the specifics. 

Step 3: Select your Success Metrics

Here’s the thing. I know there’s advice out there that says you should pick 1 metric to focus on as your goal. But we have found that even if we tried, we could never land on just 1 metric. It was too hard to do, so we never actually did it.

Instead, I encourage you to narrow yourself down to 2–4 critical metrics you need to understand and focus on in order to realize the vision behind your theme.

By choosing specific metrics, rather than just a generic goal, it connects your theme, but makes it more objective and action oriented. It isn’t always clear how to actualize a vision, but we do know how to move the needle on metrics.

When choosing your metrics, it isn’t about creating new ones to start tracking. It also doesn’t mean you’re gonna stop tracking all your other metrics. 

You’ll simply want to pick a few metrics you are already tracking and home in on them, channeling all your efforts and plans around improving those results.

Once you’ve chosen your metrics, take the average of each metric from your previous few months, so you have a good idea what that metric looks like currently. That will be your “Actual.”

Then, set your “Target,” or goal for this quarter. The difference between your actual and your target is your “Gap.”

You’ll know you have set the right targets for your metrics when you can confidently say this:

“If I can bridge the gap between where I’m at now, and my target, that will mean that I have made the progress needed to achieve my overarching theme.”

Step 4: Identify Strategic Pillars

Next, you’re going to dive a little deeper, and come up with 2–3 strategic pillars.

Think of your strategic pillars as sub-themes. Again, these are more subjective, meaning they can be interpreted in a couple different ways. Subjectivity helps breed enthusiasm and buy-in, as it gives people an opportunity to think big!

These strategic pillars are there to further unpack your overarching theme.

If, for example your theme is “Scale Up,” one of your sub-themes could be “grow the team.” This could be interpreted as: hiring more people, growing the team’s skills, or adding on more responsibilities and tasks to your current team.

The point of the Strategic Pillars is that they provide a bit more direction and purpose for your next step: crafting the key initiatives.

Step 5: Brainstorm Key Initiatives

At this point, it’s time to make the sub-themes objective, or specific and actionable. 

You already know:

  • what your overarching theme is,
  • what KPI’s you need to improve in order to achieve your theme, and
  • the sub-themes you need to address.

Now you need to identify what projects need to be finished so that you can move the needle on your metrics.

Your key initiatives are the critical projects and high-value activities that, if completed, close the gap on your success metrics and achieve the goals behind your sub-themes.

Once you have written out all the different projects and action items for each pillar, you have completed phase 1 of the Planning Process!

But your leadership team is only 1 facet of your business. In order to actually achieve your theme, you’re going to need buy-in from your teams. That’s when phase 2 comes in.

Phase 2: Review and Approval

Now that you have your plan thought out, it’s time to get feedback from your team. Hands down, the best process I have found to go about getting feedback and approval is from an article featuring leaders from Eventbrite and Airbnb (I highly recommend you check out that article when you’ve got some spare time.)

We tweaked the system a little bit, but eventually ended on this W system.

This approval process breaks down into a 4-step system of “checks and balances” in the form of feedback and revisions. Here’s the breakdown:

1. Quarterly Planning: This is the first step where the leadership team meets and fills out the Quarterly Planning Canvas. Once the canvas is filled out, it gets passed down to the team.

2. Key Initiatives: From there, the team leads review the document with their team and offer any additional or alternate key initiatives. This exchange is important because the team leads know their workload better than anyone, so they can help provide some much-needed context/accountability for what is actually doable for their team, and what products may be forgotten.

3. Integration: Once the leadership team receives all the feedback, they move into integration mode. This is where you go in and make the tough decisions, reprioritizing and integrating the different key initiatives determined by both the teams and the leadership.

4. Buy-In: Once the leadership team has finalized the plan, taking into account the feedback from each team, they send it back down to the Team level for a final review and buy-in.

At that point, you can move into implementation. We like to put all our key initiatives into a Trello board. The board is primarily used by the execs to track progress, but we do pull it up at every company meeting so we can keep our teams up to date and ensure we are all accountable to our goals.

This board is also great for brainstorming or storing other ideas and initiatives that come up throughout the quarter. That way ideas don’t get lost and we have a place to reference when we jump into the next quarterly planning session.

So, that’s how we do quarterly strategic planning at the Scalable company.  

Building a plan based on broad, subjective themes means we get to think big.

Breaking down those themes into actionable initiatives ensures we get achievable, measurable results.

And seeking feedback and buy-in at every level of the organization encourages collaboration and excitement so the work actually gets done!

So, download your copy of the Quarterly Planning Canvas, and implement this process at your next planning session so you can start seeing results too.

RESOURCES: The Quarterly Planning Canvas

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