In discussing what makes their annual planning processes most valuable, a number of executives point to their ability to foster dialog across functions. The payoff for business and finance leaders alike is in the learning experience a thorough and inclusive process delivers. “It’s mind-expanding,” says Bob McCarrick, who is the Chief Commercial Officer, Lending for GE Capital, Corporate Finance. “You’re always going to learn something about your business.”
One of the best ways to learn about your business, of course, is to talk regularly with the people responsible for conducting it. This was one of the reasons that Steve Torres, chief operating officer and chief financial officer for Vology, Inc., pushed the full-service IT infrastructure solutions provider to adopt an annual planning process that would provide “discrete learning periods” every 90 days.
“Agile companies need a more agile strategy,” says Torres, and so his company implemented the planning framework called Rapid Enterprise DevelopmentTM, or REDTM, developed by Keith McFarland at McFarland Strategy Partners. Each quarter, Vology gathers all its business managers in a room to conduct a planning “sprint”—a rapidly executed, real-time, and inclusive review of where the businesses are now, how they are doing in relation to the company’s long-term objectives, and what kinds of course corrections are needed over the next 90 days.
The emphasis is on creating a multi-level, action-oriented dialog among business leaders. The planning process melds the “on-theground” perspective and experience from those responsible for business execution, with the topdown direction—long-term objectives, strategy, vision—from corporate leadership.
“Always work to involve as many people in the planning process as possible,” McCarrick urges. “My role is to collect feedback from the team—sales, risk, capital markets, etc.—in order to develop an understanding of the pulse of the business.” So, for example, McCarrick gets “voice of the customer” information from sales and marketing, as well as competitive information. Other functions are pulled in to help identify key risk areas (adherence to government or industry regulations, etc.), and finance creates projections and runs scenario analyses based on different market conditions.
McCarrick uses all these inputs to hold workouts with managers to identify what’s working and what’s not—“to flush out key issues, obstacles, and opportunities for growth,” he says.
Companies are finding that creating this kind of dialog leverages the cross-sharing of experience and information among business teams and the company’s leadership, and leads to clarity of business actions. As Vology’s Torres notes, “The most important element is, to understand where people are struggling or where things have changed—to get the collective power of the group to help solve the problem and help that individual or that team to advance.”
For example, Ed Morgan, CFO of the Oregon-based RV dealership Guaranty RV Inc., says his company’s planning process “gives us something to talk about on a monthly basis or quarterly basis.” The annual plan isn’t something that can be allowed to sit on a shelf once it’s done. Rather, says Morgan, the point of regularly refreshing the plan is to give him an opportunity to sit down with the company’s business managers and go over, “Here’s what we thought was going to happen. Here’s what is happening. Now, how do we react accordingly?”
Achieving this dialog means you purposefully set out to create what Greg Cameron, CFO of GE Capital, Americas calls “creative conflict,” allowing teams to examine and challenge their own assumptions and adapt the businesses to the key changes in the environment. Patti Glassford, VP and CFO of GE Energy Management, emphasizes that, by doing this, “We want everybody to own the plan themselves.” GE’s McCarrick also agrees, saying that through the process, you become “better in touch with the leadership of the business.”
In the end, Cameron says, “it only works if you’re using your planning sessions for an opportunity to analyze, challenge, and prioritize the business going forward.” If you can do that, he concludes, “then you’ve got a good process.”