The experience is all too common: you're in the middle of a planning process, working to coordinate inputs from tens of various business partners, creating templates and answering questions when the call comes in.
"Management needs the plan 3 weeks earlier than scheduled."
Your shoulders droop, you utter a sigh knowing that there is no way to get to a unified plan together in that timeline. Sales numbers take time to dissect, business management needs time to digest the roll-up; the rigorous planning process that you designed just evaporated before your eyes.
While hiccups in planning processes are inevitable, far too often issues with timing and expectations can be mitigated by a few simple steps at the front-end of the process.
1. What is the end game?
For most companies, the end game is the annual announcement of next year's plan at the earnings release teleconference. This provides a date with which the rest of the process can be designed. The planning calendar should be designed with appropriate time for review and discussion. We cannot expect senior management to "accept" the budget as submitted. Time must be allowed for dissection of the plan, push-back, and adjustments. These are common and provide management with comfort that there is enough thought put into the process that their concerns will be addressed.
2. What does management need from the process?
Its true that most of the outputs of an operating plan are utilized by the business to track customers, set sales incentives, and manage costs. However, we also have to ensure that management receives the information that it needs to manage the company at a high level. It is crucial that the planning process not only compile the necessary data but also provides management with the necessary business intelligence to understand the plan.
It is critical at the start of any planning process to understand these expectations before the process calendar is created. Discussions with management about key planning indicators, presentation of proposals for desired outputs, creation of Powerpoint decks at the start of the process, and identification of questions that should be answered by the end of the process; each of these are enabling tools that work towards achieving a unified process. The goal is to understand the expectations of management prior to the start of the process so that they can be adequately addressed over the coming months.
3. Have I anticipated/planned for issues?
Frequently we enter into a new planning process looking to avoid past issues but invariably forgetting to plan for future ones. If there is any constant to a planning process it is this: things will go wrong. Submissions will be late, colleagues will take vacation, and numbers won't make sense but we still strive for our "best case" planning calendar. This isn't a prudent approach.
Instead, plan for issues, prepare contingency plans, and think through possible roadblocks. A key piece of this is getting management to buy off on the calendar. Yes they may not be used to it but formally getting management's approval on the process is key for getting them to stick to it. Don't assume that they are comfortable with it, ask. Frequently the most devastating process issues originate from management, so ensure that they process that you design has their seal of approval.