Good quality discussions are necessary to figure out the right things to do but meetings, on the other hand, could be tedious. So how do we manage to get the benefits of productive discussions without feeling like we are wasting our time in meetings?

In this article, let’s discuss how to make the quarterly planning process productive without spending hours in meetings.

Quarterly review process

Annual Planning (optional)

Formal annual planning is recommended only for mature businesses with more than 50 employees.

Bigger organizations require annual planning as an additional step to align the teams. Smaller businesses and startups will do well by sticking to quarterly planning and agile processes.

So if you are a smaller organization, feel free to skip this part and move to the next section.

Meeting typeAnnual planning session
PurposeDetermine the vision and big overarching directions for the following year
Participants Leadership (C-level executives)
SchedulingThe first week of December
Format for preparationReview KPIs progress; look through the questions on the agenda and write down your thoughts; share your input with other contributors before the session
Agenda– What needs to change in the business?
– What is our growth strategy?
– How can we improve our financial KPIs?

Depending on the level of preparation of all participants, the annual planning session may take from 30 minutes to an hour but it shouldn’t take longer than that. You should not aim to plan the exact deliverables during this session but rather lay out strategic directions and frame expectations for the year to come.

Imagine the following year as four big quadrants, and agree upon the general themes that are more likely to be dominant in each quadrant.

It is best if you also phrase questions around these themes to give a better overview of the company’s vision to the teams. Pay special attention to the dominant themes for Q1 (January-March) as this is going to be the starting point for your quarterly Company Objectives and Team OKRs.

The outcome of the annual planning session is to agree upon one and no more than 3 strategic directions and phrase open questions around them.

These strategic directions could be your Company level annual Objectives. While annual Objectives are optional to run a successful business, quarterly Objectives are an absolute must.

Quarterly Planning

A quarterly planning session is a 3-step process:

  • -1- Gathering insights (1-2 days)
  • -2- Cross-functional discussions (1-2 days)
  • -3- Agreement on priorities & dependencies (1 day)

Gathering insights

Here comes the good news. This doesn’t have to be a meeting. You can organize this process within a shared written document where everyone can add their input by a clear deadline. This will save you a lot of time.

Meeting typeGather insights (pre-work for OKR drafting)
PurposeIsolate the most important problem areas
ParticipantsLeadership (C-level executives) and Team Managers
SchedulingTwo weeks before the start of the new quarter
Format for preparationTeam Managers share the documents with retrospective reviews and analyze the same input from other teams
Agenda– What are the big problems we are facing?
– What kind of opportunities should we go after?
– And why now?

Team Managers should also look through the questions on the agenda and write down their thoughts and share their input with other contributors before the session.

Each business problem is complex and can be further broken down into smaller pieces. Just like we need to slice a cake because we cannot swallow it whole, we need to dissect a big problem into digestible aspects that could be discussed in a group.

For example, if our big problem is new client acquisition, then what about it?

  • What is not working right now? How do we know?
  • What are we not doing yet?
  • What can we do better?

The leaders should collect insights from the teams, and present them in a few bullet points. The facilitator (OKR champion or a volunteering leader) will then try to group the ideas and different solutions into specific themes, and if needed, schedule further discussions.

The outcome of this session is to reach an agreement on the most important aspects of the problem. To put it bluntly, just get answers to these three questions:

  • what is solvable in a quarter,
  • why it is important right now,
  • and which teams should be consulted to find a solution?

Once this is done, leaders should organize cross-functional group discussions around each aspect. This problem or an opportunity becomes a theme for this quarter and can be later wordsmithed into a quarterly Company Objective.

Cross-functional discussions

You will need a facilitator for this session. Technically, you need someone to guide the discussion during any meeting, but cross-functional group discussions will not be productive at all unless you have a dedicated person who will structure the ideas into a workable summary.

Meeting typeCross-functional discussion (OKR drafting session)
PurposeCome up with raw OKR drafts and agree on specific outcomes for the quarter
Participants Subject matter experts from any level of the company
SchedulingRight after the first stage is complete (within the 2 weeks before the new quarter starts)
Format for preparationShared document or a collaborative whiteboard with everyone’s ideas
Agenda– How do we approach this problem?
– How do we define the success criteria?
– How can we measure progress?
– How do distribute ownership of deliverables?

Take the conclusions from the previous step and bring them to cross-functional group discussions. You may have noticed that the questions on the agenda have changed from “What” to “How”, and that is exactly what these discussions are for – to determine how this problem will be solved and by whom.

This discussion must happen live, and everyone should come prepared. The preparation includes both sharing your own input and reading through what others have written.

There might be a need to schedule several sessions but make sure to keep each session within the 45-60 minutes limit.

Once the raw OKR drafts are ready, it’s time to bring in the functional teams and ask for feedback from every team member who will be involved in the execution process.

Learn more about drafting Team OKRs.

Agreement on priorities

Meeting typeAgreement on priorities (finalizing OKRs)
PurposeValidate the capability to achieve the OKRs, and determine all kinds of effort needed from each functional area.
Participants Internal team meeting
SchedulingLast week before the new quarter begins
Format for preparationTeam managers and subject matter experts share the written summary from the previous step
Agenda– What can we do to deliver on the outcomes?
– What kind of initiatives should we prioritize for the first month of the quarter?
– What might be potential blockers?
– Any other comments or disagreements?

Team members should add comments or questions to the shared document prior to the meeting and suggest changes that they consider vital.

There is a great exercise that could help a facilitator (OKR champion) organize the ideas that came out from the cross-functional discussions. The exercise is called the Opportunity-Solution tree and it’s highly recommended by a Product Discovery coach, Teresa Torres.

Here is a quick overview of how to use this exercise to draft your team’s OKRs.

The OKR example is ours but the exercise material is borrowed from Teresa’s video to make things simpler.

How to reduce time in meetings?

  • You should always consider the cost of hours of people: to justify putting a lot of people in one room, it needs to be something truly special with a clearly defined agenda.
  • For ad-hoc meetings, the rule should be: when a Slack thread (or any other chat) is going back and forth with no resolution, just call the person.
  • Live status reporting is the biggest waste of time in the corporate world (sorry if that sounded a bit aggressive). People tend to do something else on their laptops when others are presenting so there is no real need to have these presentations live. You should use the PPP template in Weekdone to record, report, and share the most significant updates on an ongoing basis.

Weekly Planning and regular Team Check-ins are both parts of an ongoing alignment process. We will share the best practices for the progress-tracking framework in the next article of this section.