True story, I had a nightmare this weekend about being an executive at a company’s annual planning meeting. Somehow we’d identified 1,700 vital strategic initiatives and everyone was voting by sticking little dots next to the five they most supported. I tried to stop it, to bring more focus to the process, but I couldn’t move or talk. 

It was kind of like being stuck in a business version of Purgatory. 

Many of us have experienced this Purgatory. We spend a week or three doing business planning, covering conference room walls with flip chart paper, each page covered with a peculiar offsite language, describing awful and awesome ideas which will never be implemented. 

This Purgatory is one extreme of business planning.

Another extreme occurs when a team takes six months, or a year, to produce a big honking binder which is presented, a page at a time, while everyone checks their email. These binders will age gracefully on bookshelves throughout the company. 

In between these extremes lies the common annual planning session. Years ago these sessions probably began with a big goal or a crisis, but they’ve slowly become more about alignment around the current trajectory. Maybe with some team building thrown in. Each year SWOT templates are completed, spreadsheets updated, and projection curves tweaked. Everything is done with a sense of inertia from the pervious year's planning session. 

Most of us have been in at least one of these types of planning sessions, and while none are totally bad, they’re just not as good as they need to be. I’ll suggest three reasons why this is true:

First, these meetings are most often about the ones holding it, not the customer. 

Second, these meetings seem expensive. As a result we limit the number and levels of participants and miss valuable insights, solutions, and buy-in from the full diversity of our organization. And by full diversity I’m looking at you Millennials, but also other folks who see opportunities and express ideas in ways outside of the norm.

Third, in none of the above is there a real opportunity for a meaningful dialog about required or desired change, the obstacles in the way, or to create a realistic plan for change.

I want to suggest that "change" serve as the touchstone and milestone for planning meetings. In my experience every planning session needs to answer four “change” questions: 

  1. Why change? 
  2. What to change?
  3. What to change to?
  4. How to make the change? 

These could be internal changes to improve effectiveness or culture, external changes to retain customers or increase sales, or strategic changes to expand into new markets or partnerships. 

One thing I’ve found important when I facilitate planning meetings is to respect each of the four change questions. Many folks naturally jump straight to “What to change to?” before the other questions are answered. Inevitably someone will ask one of the other “change” questions that we’d skipped or only kind of answered and we’ll realize we have to go back and do it right.

Every planning session should also answer the Who? When? And How will we know? questions since most of us are measured on our actions and results, not our plans. Dang it.

How long does it take to answer all of these questions? As it turns out, not so long. Each group has their pace, and it depends upon the magnitude and complexity of the situation, but the simplicity of the questions supports a surprisingly smooth flow to the process. I’ve worked with teams to plan a new product from concept to international launch, to simultaneously revamp maintenance processes across Latin America, or to completely rebuild a supply chain in three to four days. Larger changes might take two to three shorter sessions, with folks doing some homework in between. 

How often should we have these meetings? Well, how fast is your market or environment changing? How flexible is your organization in moving from one product or service to another? How well does it accommodate change? Are you a large CAPX business? The answer could be annually, every six months, quarterly, or something else. 

What I often see, since each organization usually handles change better as time goes on, is that the planning sessions become shorter but more frequent, as the organization moves up the experience curve and becomes more confident and proactive.

To sum this up in a dreamy way, major planning sessions should be gut checking, inclusive, customer driven, dialog creating, action producing events. They should also happen often enough and fast enough to keep the organization in sync with, or even ahead(!) of market and environmental changes. 

And please, let’s leave the 1,700 initiatives and little dots for other companies. The ones in Purgatory.