It is of little surprise that three months has become a standard for short-term corporate planning. Aside from this being the standard corporate financial reporting timeframe, it is also roughly the right timeframe to set meaningful goals for team members.
When a manager sets the expectations with an individual in their team, it’s important that the work assigned is the right mix of what the team members find interesting, what’s useful to the organization, and what helps individual team members flourish. The work assigned should be challenging enough to force that person out of their comfort zone and learn some new skills or perspective, but not too challenging that it causes them to completely fail at the task, or to never have a real chance at succeeding their assignment in the first place.
The key questions we want to address are:
• How do we plan for the next quarter?
• How do we set key assignments for team members?
• How do we track the results to ensure that we are on course?
The Planning Session.
Prior to the start of the new quarter, you should sit down with each team member to discuss how the previous quarter went, and what they thought of the work they were assigned.
It’s important to keep an objective mindset when having these discussions, and reviewing the notes from the previous quarterly planning session is invaluable during these discussions. Of course, if this is your first quarterly planning session, then you won’t have this luxury.
It’s important to note what wasn’t achieved as planned, and why. Perhaps the task was significantly more time consuming than initially estimated, or priorities shifted during the quarter so that certain work was not deemed as important enough- compared to other tasks. It’s important not to automatically “roll over” work from the previous quarter to the next one. Whilst something was initially deemed worth doing three months ago, it may not mean it is still relevant or worth doing today. Remember to re-evaluate all tasks as if they were new.
Have a discussion on the organizational objectives for the quarter or year, to ensure that these are front of mind and that everyone is aligned with the high-level vision. Then, in similar fashion to a design sprint, have a 10-15 minute session where you'll write up any and all ideas that come to mind for the next quarter that the team member can do to further those objectives. The best way to do this is to use one sticky note per idea and to place them on a wall or white board.
The idea here is not to be “right”, but to encourage innovative thinking, so be sure to clearly communicate that all ideas are welcome. Include that you expect a significant number of ideas between the two of you, far more than can actually be executed in a given quarter. Spend 20 seconds on each idea explaining the high-level work required to execute it.
Sort the ideas into logical groupings. For instance, if you’re in marketing you may split ideas between social media, CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), offline activities, advertisement, etc. This level of organization will show if there are any biases towards a particular type of work and if some areas are under-served or haven’t been thought about much. If that’s the case, spend a few more minutes brainstorming on ideas for that section.
Finally, you’ll be voting with a set number of stickers to add to each individual sticky note or a particular grouping of sticky notes. This process can also be done completely remotely by using whiteboard software like Miro. See an example below for a whiteboard session we had with a banking client as part of a Design Sprint.
By the end of this process, you should have a clear idea of the most important work that needs to be achieved in line with the organizational goals, however it won't yet be clear if all this work is achievable by one person within three months. This is where frank discussion is required on the approximate time required for each item and how likely is it that it will be completed at the required quality, within the quarter.
In our experience, it’s worth leaving approximately 20% of capacity free to account for additional work that comes up as well as any other unexpected situations such as shifts in strategy, re-evaluations of the work required, or even sick days or personal leave.
Whilst the above planning sessions are advantageous, it’s not enough to just have this singular meeting every three months. Each main objective will need tracking, as well as potential cooperation with other team members for the required resources or assistance to ensure success.
The way we do this, both for individuals and teams, is by creating a Process (or KanBan) Board to track the status of each work required for the quarter, as well as any other backlog items or ideas.
In Japanese, kanban translates as "visual signal." For kanban boards, each work item is represented as a separate card on the board.
There are great Team Management Software (TMS) solutions championing these process boards, however we went a step further and created our own to ensure we had the ability to address every business need we uncovered. Bloo.io is now utilized by many major corporations worldwide, as we continue to evolve this TMS software.
The advantages of this, versus purely emailing the individual after the planning session with the list of tasks, is that it gives a real-time view to everyone involved on what’s happening. There are therefore no surprises at the end of the quarter about what’s been done or not done, and it also gives a place to discuss each item and track any decisions and conclusions.
The tools for this can be as simple as a white board with the sticky notes, but we prefer a digital process board as this has several advantages:
- Remote Friendly. As remote work becomes more and more commonplace, having a physical board that team members need to access can be cumbersome and actually derail productivity and efficiency. We’ve heard stories from clients where team members actually take photos of the board on Fridays so they have a reference for weekend work when required, essentially creating an impractical digital board.
- Discussions within each item. A digital tool allows you to comment and discuss each item, which is great for reference and cuts down on the number of meetings required as communication can be done asynchronously.
- Subtasks. Many tools allow you to create subtasks within each main tasks. This is invaluable as it allows you to break work down into smaller more manageable “chunks” vs large items that can be nebulous in nature.
- Track large amounts of work. The above process can also be done for teams, and this can often mean that during the current quarter of work, backlog items and ideas, plus the old work that you may still need to reference, you end up with hundreds and hundreds of tasks. Having a digital tool allows you to instantly filter by person, search by name, and have all the required files and reference materials attached to each task.
Hopefully you've found this method of planning quarterly work for team members (or indeed entire teams) useful. We've been running this methodology for several years with great results.
The most surprising discovery from adopting this way of planning each quarter, is that the individuals involved surprise themselves with just how much they can accomplish when there is a plan in place. Just remember to assign the appropriate resources and support, and that any roadblocks are tackled directly and quickly.