May I speak frankly? We leaders get frustrated with annual plans because (1) stuff happens that no one could have anticipated, and (2) we are fearful of being held accountable to a plan we created with imperfect information. Far too many of us build an annual plan, file it away, and (maybe) don’t review it until the end of year performance review time, or when we need to create an end-of-year report.
In short, we go through a planning exercise because “we’re supposed to” rather than as a stewardship approach to leadership. You’re a better leader than that, so don’t let this year’s plan be wasted energy or a pro-forma exercise.
How to Create Your Annual Plan
I recommend you combine your imagination, your calendar, and other people in your planning process. Begin by looking up, and thinking farther out. What happens if you focus your eyes on your belly button and start running? (I recommend you try this experiment in a soft grassy location.) Can you plow a straight line across a field if you only look at the front of the tractor, or paddle a canoe to a distant point across the lake if you focus on the bow of the boat?
God gave you an imagination so you can dream BIG. It’s not your calling to shrink, hide, and be “safe.” We tend to overestimate what we can do in a year, and underestimate what could happen in 5 years – but most of all we tend to dream too small for any time period.
Think about calendaring. We are time-bound creatures, and plenty of work needs to be delivered on a schedule. There are predictable events in your year. What needs to be accomplished for these, and when does the pre-work occur? How can you be well-prepared rather than rushing at the last moment?
Leave margin. Hold the ambitious “we’re going to do THIS” in constructive tension with the facts that you’re human, need rest, and cannot predict everything you’ll need to do this year. Build in the rest breaks you need, and the learning time for your own development. People are served out of the overflow of good things pouring into your cup. Many of us have roles we need to execute when unschedulable events occur. We must allow time to be available to others, to deal with new problems, to pivot to new opportunities.
Be specific, and positive in your language describing your plans. How will you and others know if you’re reaching your goals unless you commit to concrete, measurable statements? Think about the who/what/where/when facts. Always use positive language to describe your objectives. Positive language engages people rather than dividing them or focusing them on negative behaviors.
Work with others to refine your plan. There’s a limit to how much a leader can plan by himself. You need to round out plans with key people in your organization. Dream with them about possibilities that you could create together. Enroll them in the plan—engaging their hearts, minds, attention, and commitment. I recommend using a leadership planning calendar to help your team do this. This practice will help you work together on both strategy and tactics. Also, engaging others in this planning work is a significant way we mentor other leaders.
Keeping Your Annual Plan Useful
Great, you have a plan for the year! Congratulations on your investment in the planning process. What now?
You plan isn’t done until you have “review & adjust” times on your calendar. Schedule a quarterly review, and make adjustments based on new opportunities and new information. Make this an actual calendar appointment and keep it. You’ll probably need a personal review and a review with your team.
I recommend you establish a practice of planning six-week deliverables. Six weeks is long enough to accomplish significant work and short enough that you can’t procrastinate. Six weeks is half a quarter, and many of us have roles with quarterly rhythms. Emphasize deliverables – not “working on” but what you finish. Build your daily and weekly to-accomplish lists based on your six-week plan.