Planning takes planning… and faster growth = starting quarterly planning earlier than ever before

Agency annual and quarterly planning starts sooner than you expect!
Written by: Karl Sakas

“Planning takes planning”—as an agency owner observed at the end of a recent coaching call.

I’ve been helping him and his business partner up-level their agency’s annual and quarterly planning process. Over the past year, this has included moving the quarterly planning process earlier and earlier. It also included identifying key performance indicators (KPIs) and creating an Objectives and Key Results (OKR) structure… and monitoring progress each quarter.

Back when their agency was smaller, they didn’t do a lot of planning. That was OK at the time, because they could easily adjust on the fly. But as they’ve grown, they’re pursuing bigger initiatives… and now there are more people to coordinate. And they have middle managers, instead of the owners managing everyone directly. Planning now requires more and more pre-planning.

Sound familiar? In this article, I’ll share ways to change your annual and quarterly planning as your agency grows. You might also like my Agency Leadership Intensive, to help share the workload with your team.

Creating an Annual Plan: Start Early

Another client realized that as her agency had grown, she needed to start the annual planning process earlier than even before. We now start annual planning in October. Why? It’s just a lot more complicated.

  1. She sets strategic goals, and drafts an initial “version 0” plan.
  2. Then, she enlists her CFO to look at budget implications, and enlists her COO to share feedback about high-level priorities.
  3. After the executive team agrees on the general direction, her COO turns the strategy into an implementation plan. This tends to involve 1-2 revisions, since certain goals impact other goals.
  4. Next, department directors share their feedback—which sometimes leads to further revisions, if the corporate-level goals are impractical to implement without “heroic measures.”
  5. Finally, the department directors turn the agency-level goals into team- and individual-level KPIs. Ideally, they finish this before Christmas, in time to launch for Q1 in the new year.

Quarterly Planning (and Annual Planning) are a Continuous Process

In a sense, the planning process never ends. Consider quarterly goals:

  • A month into the quarter, you’ll review progress against the quarterly goals.
  • A month later, you’re reviewing progress again… and drafting the next quarter’s goals.
  • A month later, you’re debriefing on the just-ended quarter’s results, and starting the new quarter.

It’s like the saying about painting a bridge: “As soon as you finish, it’s time to start all over again.”

Delegation Takes Longer… but Makes Things Easier

If you do 100% of planning yourself, you can complete the process fairly quickly. But working solo makes things harder for you, and your team. Why? Because you’re not getting input from the people primarily impacted by your plan.

Delegation takes time, but it’s worth it. Your team likely has suggestions to help you do things better… and may notice conflicts early, when there’s still time to work around. Plus, people tend to be more invested in a plan when they feel bought-into the plan; that’s hard to do if you never consulted them.

Consider these roles, when it comes to annual and quarterly planning (including the EOS model of “Visionary” and “Integrator”):

  • Agency Owner (as “Visionary”): The owner is responsible for the overall vision, which drives specifics on creating (and implementing) the plan.
  • COO or other Operations Head (as “Integrator”): The integrator converts the vision into an actionable plan. Sometimes they’re a hired COO; other times, they’re an operations-minded owner.
  • The “Integrator’s Integrator”: Many agencies don’t have someone in this role. But as I look at my highest-performing clients, the integrator typically has their own integrator. For instance, the COO has a Director of Operations, or the VP of Operations has an Operations Manager.

What else should you know? Read on for things I’ve noticed in my work.

Observations: Things to Keep in Mind as You Plan

Here are some things I’ve learned from experience, both in advising agencies and in my own planning.

  • It’s easy to procrastinate. Several years ago, I started working with a client near the end of the calendar year. I learned that he hadn’t told his management team their annual goals until… July of that year. Unfortunately, this led to confusion. I’m guessing there was some duplicate work… and perhaps even situations where people were inadvertently working against each other.
  • Planning can seem a bit like a treadmill. For a long time, I lived in apartment complex that used central dumpsters for trash and recycling. Now, my house has weekly pickup from street-side bins. As I observed to my colleague Diane: “I realized recently that I’ll be taking the bins out every week for the rest of my life.” But that also means I don’t need to take trash to the dump, or wonder when a pickup might happen.
  • An annual, quarterly, and month cadence is a fact of life when you run a business. In a sense, there’s a certain comfort to it. There’s always a new month, a new quarter, a new year. If you miss your goals, you [usually] have a chance to do it over again next time. And if you don’t like a certain degree of routine, you can enlist someone else to take care of that for you.
  • What happens if you under-plan? If you don’t plan enough up front, you’ll probably be scrambling later. Or as I like to say: “When you take time to plan for the expected, you’ll have time to improvise the unexpected.”
  • Can you over-plan? Yes, absolutely. You ideally won’t over-invest time in planning, since it’s unlikely to pay off. Growing up, my dad shared the military joke that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” Yet… you still need to go through the planning process. It helps you improvise as things change, since the planning process is just as important as the resulting plan.
  • Consider how to automate the oversight process. For instance, you can use the 15Five employee engagement software to manage OKRs. If you use the feature, people include OKRs update in their weekly update process. It still requires work on their part, but it’s more seamless than using an entirely different system.
  • Faster growth = more frequent adjustments. If you’re doubling (or tripling) your revenue in a year, you’ll need to make monthly adjustments, rather than on a quarterly basis. And you may need to shift priorities more abruptly than at an agency growing 20-50% a year. If you don’t already have someone leading operations (and ideally an “integrator for the integrator”), it’s time to start.
  • Planning includes choosing what you are not going to do. At a recent mid-year team retreat, I adjusted plans for the rest of the year, set initial priorities for the coming year, identified high-level priorities for two years out… and made a list of things that I’m not going to do. Things can certainly change (I’ve left space in the schedule to capitalize on random opportunities). But there’s power in declaring that “no,” you won’t do certain things—because it lets you move on to focus on what got a “yes.”

Does planning have to be miserable? No. But it needs to happen. When you see it as a normal part of running an agency—and enlist your team, and find a balance to do the right amount of planning—it seems like less of a chore, and more of an opportunity. After all, annual and quarter planning helps you reach your personal and professional goals—and it’s nice to reach your goals.

The more your agency grows, the sooner you’ll want to start—because larger agencies tend to be more-complex agencies. And more-complex agencies need a longer “runway” to get things right. You’re steering a cruise ship, not a speedboat.

Want to grow your agency more smoothly in the coming year? Check out my Agency Leadership Intensive. The program is designed exclusively for agency owners and executives.

Question: How do you approach annual and quarterly planning at your agency?

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