Most companies have an operational slowdown in December and/or January, making the two months prime time for annual planning. If you haven't yet been through such an exercise, it's one that can be highly valuable.Annual planning allows a leadership team to "rise to 30,000 feet", view the landscape of things to come and reflect on where they've been. It aligns the leadership team so it can execute faster and better in the new year. And it clarifies priorities that can be communicated throughout the entire company.
Not only are we doing our own annual planning for The Junto Institute in the coming weeks, we also get asked by our companies how they can best use their slow period to look back and look ahead. Based on experience, here are seven initiatives that may be valuable for growth-stage companies to engage in at this time of year.
1. Do a Year-in-Review
Personally, I'm a big fan of this. Reflecting on the past year to identify and discuss what went well and what didn't. Were there specific decisions that moved the company in a particular direction? When did good luck or bad luck arise, and can the former be replicated and the latter be avoided in the future? Having a profit and loss or cash flow statement handy can also help tie decisions made to financial outcomes, and identify any seasonal or cyclical trends.
2. Update the Strategic or Operating Plan
For companies that have a strategic plan (2-3 years) or operating plan (1-2 years) already in place, this is the best time to review how well the company did. This can be done with the year-in-review or separately, and should be focused similarly on why and how certain objectives were met or not. Which ones should be renewed or extended and, of course, which ones are no longer relevant? And finally, this plan can contain the strategic or operational goals for the next 1-3 years that can help define immediate priorities, discussed below.
3. Set Priorities
This can also be identified as goal-setting, intentions, etc. At Junto, we like to use a 30-90-180 construct for this. You begin by setting 3-6 priorities for the year, whether they're strategic or operational. Then, you identify what needs to happen by mid-year in order to achieve those priorities. Then, you list what needs to be happen in three months to achieve the mid-year milestones. Finally, you lay out what steps need to be accomplished in the next 30 days to hit the 90-day goals. Every month, these items are reviewed by the leadership team and revised or celebrated based on performance.
4. Create an Annual Budget
It's not sexy but it's incredibly valuable. Budgeting is creating a projected cash flow statement or cash-based profit and loss statement that identifies where the company's revenues will be coming from and how its expenses will be allocated. Beyond standard operating expenses (salaries, rent, etc.), the budgeting process allows the company to forecast how much cash its priorities (discussed above) may produce and require, and what other projects can be undertaken, such as a marketing campaign, web site redesign, enhanced employee benefits package, etc. Note: I'm a big believer in a cash-based budget because it's the lifeblood of a growing business.
5. Do Tax Planning
About as exciting as budgeting is the process of doing tax planning. Fortunately, two things should make it easier. First, your accountant or tax attorney should be guiding it (in fact, if they haven't already initiated contact to do this, perhaps you have the wrong provider). Second, one of the main objectives is to lower your tax burden. Accountants will often look for opportuntiies to accelerate spending that can be deductible in the current year or defer income into the new year (again, on the cash basis of accounting). Furthemore, tax planning can help you understand how next year's budget may affect cash flows and the company's financial health from a tax perspective.
6. Create a Learning & Development Plan
At Junto, we obviously believe that one of the best investments a company can make is in its people. We're heartened when we hear from our companies that they've set a budget for employees to use on their own learning and development, or that the leadership team is allocating time and money to help their team grow. Year-end is an appropriate time to ask your co-founders and executive team what the company's staff could benefit from learning about or how to elevate the skills and capabilities of specific ones.
7. Do People Planning
Aligned with budgeting and priorities is the planning of how the company's staffing may evolve during the year. What new hires will be required to get the company to achieve its priorities, and can they be budgeted? Are there employees whose performance is a worry or might even need to be fired? Who needs to move into a new role based on the company's growth trajectory? What new senior-level managers or executives are necessary at the company's current stage of growth? All these questions and more can lay out a people strategy that, again, aligns with what the company wants to achieve for the new year.
For a growth-stage company, each of these year-end initiatives can help align the leadership team, put people at ease by reducing some uncertainty, and save time making decisions in the coming months. There's no better time than the present to reflect on the past and plan for the future.