You Seriously Don't Have an Annual Plan?

If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.
— Ben Franklin (attributed)

This time of the year, I find myself in a lot of intense conversations with founders and leaders about their plans for the coming year. I am always disappointed to discover that many do not have a plan. They often have next year's goals and financial forecasts, usually required if they have a Board of Directors, but they don’t know the details of how those goals will be met. It’s all good and well to declare what you are going to do, but how much thought have you given to how you’re going to get it done?


A strategic or operating plan is the cornerstone of a healthy business. I hear you - there are so many assumptions and things out of your control. Why put the effort into a plan when you know there’s a lot for which you’ll be wrong? Well, if you don’t try to figure out how it’ll get done, odds are it won’t. And in the case that it doesn’t, how will you learn? What did you do wrong (execution), or what assumptions weren’t valid, or what external influences knocked you off the path?

Planning Tools

You can do a plan in as little as a few hours. Consider it the most important Quadrant II time you’ll ever spend. There are systems and tools you can use as a guide, such as the Gazelles Rockefeller Habits and the Entrepreneur Operating System (EOS). I’ve recently been working with the Business Builder’s Blueprint from The Alternative Board and prefer its more linear approach. Complex systems aren’t necessary to plan what is a mostly linear top-down analysis of goals to achieve and the methods in which to accomplish them. All of these systems are sufficient, but to be honest, a spreadsheet might be the most effective tool for doing an annual plan.

A few years ago I was working with the advisory board of a startup. The founder was a member of EO and had shared with us a blank Gazelle’s one page strategic plan that he was struggling to complete. I had known this founder for many years and it was clear to me that the one page plan wasn’t aligned with how he thought, the way which he naturally processed information. I asked him to put the sheet way and we opened a blank spreadsheet. We started top-down from the goals and strategies and within the hour we had the skeleton of a plan.

Working Top-Down Linear

I believe that a plan is linear. You start at the top and work your way down. If you look at all the components of a plan, from the top down they’d be:

  • Personal Vision

If you are the business’ owner or founder, why did you start it and what do you want out of life? Your company vision should align with your personal vision, so identify it first.

  • Company Vision

Why does the company exist? What is it trying to accomplish in the long term?

  • Leader’s Agenda

If you’re the leader, what is important to you this year? You get to set your own agenda that drives the company’s direction.

  • Company Goals

Time and metric-based accomplishments to achieve during the year. They don’t need to be annual only, but can (and perhaps should) be at least quarterly. These must be clear, not subject to interpretation.

  • Strategy and CSFs

At the highest level, what is your approach to “tackling” the goals? What Critical Success Factors are necessary to master in order to accomplish the goals? These are likely high level ideas, not specific measurables.

  • Departmental Goals

If you have an organization that has departments or groups (or sub-groups), each should have its own set of measurable goals. The sum of all the departments’ goals should accomplish no less than the company’s goals (it’s top-down, afterall).

  • Plans and tactics

Here’s the secret sauce to your plan. How do the goals get achieved? Who does what and when, with enough detail to know if you’re offtrack and be able to assess why. Everyone in the company can (should) contribute to this effort - that would be the epitome of being top-down!

Rolling Twelve Months

Most planning tools are created for a calendar-oriented annual plan - twelve months in one calendar year. We know that a plan is a “living” document, something that can (and should) change as we validate assumptions and generate results. Therefore, it’s arbitrary to plan January through December, or follow some other tax or governance-related fixed twelve months. Consider making your plan a rolling twelve months, revisiting it each quarter and recasting the upcoming twelve months. For this reason, I love the the spreadsheet as the core planning tool.

Bonding for Team and Peers

An advantage to having a company-wide annual plan is that your team not only has a roadmap, but now has a language that can be shared and creates bonds. By language, I’m not referring to planning buzzwords such as BHAGs or boulders, those are cute terms that might add some fun to the process. The actual goals, strategies and projects in your plan become concepts and phrases that everyone knows and shares. The transparency is powerful in having everyone one the same page (though it’ll be more than one page long). And if you’re whole team contributed to the plan, the experience in having worked together is priceless.

A number of years ago I worked for a CEO who was a member of Vistage (peer networks) and his group and its “chair” (coach) decided its members should each do a three year strategic plan for their company. Our CEO came back to the office all excited and proceeded to delegate the planning tasks to us, his senior management team. We had all built such plans previously in our careers, so we were comfortable doing so, though three years is a lot of work given the maturity of our company. He eventually opted out of cooperating with any of the planning exercises and we were forced to build the plan without his input. He shared the plan with his Vistage group, mostly unread or sight unseen, and checked off the box for his peers and his group’s chair.

The plan is a tool for the whole company, but is worthless if it doesn’t start at the top. A strategic or annual plan is how a leader knows the goals are attainable and that the company is on a path aligned with its vision. If the leader owns the business, the plan is a way to know that the company is aligned with their own personal vision and it embodies your “agenda.”

A page from an annual plan from one of my companies in 2001 when we had 375 employees and nearly $150M in revenue.

Are you struggling to figure out what’s next and how to get it all done? Don’t hesitate to reach out to the Trajectify team for an outside-in perspective. We’ll coach, we’ll facilitate, we’ll make sure it gets done!