How to Plan and Set Goals (with Templates and Samples)

Your startup needs an Operating System. Your planning and goals system is a fundamental part of that Operating System.

This resource explains how to build your planning and goals system and includes detailed guidelines, templates, and examples. You can adapt this to your needs to create your own versions.

This resource is a long one, but planning is a huge and complicated process. Like most OpsMBA resources, this is a practical resource for operators to use when actually performing this task. Not necessary for casual weekend reading, unless this is the kind of thing you read to relax.

Your operating system starts with and builds on your organization’s Foundational Materials. The Foundational Materials define your organization. They include some combination of a vision, mission, strategy, values, and culture. After you have your foundational materials, you’re ready to plan.

What’s planning?

Planning is how you turn your Foundational Materials into measurable goals, a prioritized to do list, and project plans, to maximize your likelihood of success.

Why plan?

Six of the many reasons to plan:

1. Prioritize the right goals.  Having a planning system will make it much more likely that you’ll work on the most important things. You may prioritize well by just sitting around, thinking hard about what to work on. But that’s really unlikely. With a planning system and framework for prioritizing, you’re much more likely to set the right goals.

2. Know the goals.  You’re more likely to achieve the goals if you know the goals! At many organizations, the management team reports knowing the goals, and being focused and aligned on them, while their staff often report much lower levels of both. If everyone knows and aligns on the goals, and therefore pushes in the same direction, you’re much more likely to get there.

3. Focus on the goals.  By having a transparent system, with documented goals that everyone is clear on, you’re more likely to focus on the goals and less likely to deviate from them or be distracted. You’re also more likely to work on the right amount of projects and not try to do too much based on sudden decisions and constant manufactured urgency.

4. Communicate.  Communication is harder than it seems like it should be. With a planning process that involves good communication and transparent goals, you’re actually a long way down the path toward having good communication generally. So much of communicating is communicating the plans, priorities, and progress. And a planning system is a great trigger for communicating those things. Build communication into the planning process. And make this part of your communication system.

5. Empower the team.  If your team knows the company goals, and sets their own goals based on the company goals, then the team will feel and be empowered, and empowered people do their best work, recruit their friends, take initiative and ownership, solve problems, and get results. Related, see the values and culture points from the foundational materials resource.

6. Learn.  Having a system that tracks progress and measures success will make it easier to spot the opportunities for improvement and learning. Learning is fundamental to succeeding. Build learning into the planning system.

What is planning not for?

Planning is not for judging performance.

As stated above, the planning process is for empowerment. By having a planning process that’s driven by the people doing the work, you empower people to self-manage. If you also used the planning process to judge performance, your people would no longer see it as a self-management and empowerment tool. They would see it as a control tool. That would be counterproductive to the purposes of the process.

You want people being comfortable setting aggressive goals and not being afraid of the possibility of missing them. You want people who are secure in their jobs. You want the planning process for each person to focus on getting results and on personal growth for getting future results. (You should separately have a performance review system.)

Some questions your planning system needs to answer

Answering these questions before and during the planning process will ensure your process achieves its goals.

  • Who owns the planning process?
  • How centralized is the process?
  • Who project manages the planning process?
  • Who participates in the planning process?
  • What’s each person’s role?
  • When do you get each level of the company involved?
  • Who makes which decisions?
  • How do you make the decisions?
  • How much do you want to trust and empower the team and individual to manage themselves and be owners of and decision makers for their goals?
  • What will be communicated about the process and when?
  • When does the process start?
  • How long does it take?
  • What is the planning schedule?
  • How often do you plan?
  • What defines a good goal and process? SMART? OKRs? KPIs? V2MOM? Something else?
  • How many goals do you have at each level?
  • Do you have team and individual level goals?
  • What software and tools will you use to run the process?
  • What’s the output of the planning process?
  • How do you share the output of the planning process?
  • How do you track progress against goals?
  • How do you learn from past planning processes to improve future planning processes?
  • Is the planning process based on and consistent with your foundational materials, especially your values and culture?
  • How does your prioritization system rank the initiatives and tasks to decide which to do and not do? What’s the potential value and projected cost of each initiative and task so that you can compare them?
  • How and when do you make changes in the plan mid-cycle after you’ve moved on from planning to execution?

Those are the questions. These are the answers.

Planning systems vary significantly. Some are very complicated and time consuming. Some are quick and simple. Below is one way to do it. It isn’t the only way or the right way, it’s a way.

You don’t want too much administration. You don’t want too much or too little flexibility, where you’re either deviating from the goals and changing them all the time or never changing even when you know you’re on the wrong path.

For a company with 10 people, this is probably too much, but some version of this will make sense. Like all of this, you need to decide for yourself what system works for your organization and for your foundational materials.

The output of this process are:

  • Company annual goals
  • Team annual goals
  • Team quarterly goals
  • Individual quarterly goals (as needed)
  • Prioritized projects and tasks
  • Budget and models with financials and metrics
  • Methods and tools for tracking and reporting on the progress

Guidelines for Planning

  • Don’t obsess over the process. You could spend years trying to figure out the perfect process and priorities and would still make mistakes. You’ll never get it perfect. No one ever has. Someone will love the process. Someone will hate it. Someone will think it should be longer. Someone will think it should be shorter. Involve people so they understand that it’s an iterative process. Plan, then move on, learn, and iterate. Make this process worth the time and effort.
  • Make sure the team knows that the goal isn’t perfection. The goals are the reasons you plan, listed above. When you’re creating your own plan, think about those goals of the process, how one stage leads to the next, and the inputs and outputs of each stage, as you can see in the planning template below.
  • Be flexible and practical. Especially at early stage companies, you may have to change the goals and system often. Again, this process is about the ultimate success of the company not running a perfect process.
  • Have some kind of framework for the goals: SMART, OKRs, V2MOM, combinations of those (they do overlap, depending on who you ask about how each one works), or whatever you believe best fits your organization.
  • Make sure the system cascades from the top down. For example, foundational materials inform company long-term goals inform company annual goals inform company and team quarterly goals inform individual goals.
  • Before you start the process, educate your team on how planning and execution will work. People need to understand the value and feel included. Don’t jump in without that introduction. As part of this education, prepare people for iterations and mistakes. A planning process is one of the most difficult and important tasks your organization will do.
  • Have goals that are specific and measurable so that you can compare your actual results to the goals and learn and improve.
  • Don’t have too many goals! If you have too many goals, then you have no goals.
  • You may not need individual goals for your company or team, or you may want to leave the decision about whether to have individual goals up to the managers.
  • Start your strategic planning mid-year at the latest. Then start the planning process in September. That way, you won’t be rushed and you’ll finish in time to present to the team and board in December and start executing in January. For the non-annual, sub-planning cycles (quarters, six week cycles, months, however you plan), you can do the process in the two to three weeks starting at the end of each previous cycle. See the planning templates below for more detail.
  • The planning process should have an owner who manages the process, ensuring everything is done on time and done right.
  • Ensure lots of communication going up, down, and across, and that the people who will be doing the work are driving their goals.
  • The planning system should produce annual company (1) target goals (for the board), (2) stretch goals (for management purposes), and (3) downsides (for budgeting).
  • Set the right timelines. When a goal is a product launch, don’t set the deadline to be last day of quarter for the benefit of the planning cycle, unless that’s the right deadline for the product. Set the date that you think you can hit or set the right milestone for the end of the quarter. Goals may end mid-cycle or carry over to the next cycle. Otherwise the artificial quarterly planning cycle will slow things down and cause unrealistically aggressive goals.
  • Planning is good, but planning without execution is worthless. Follow up on the planning process with intense project management, with owners, milestones, deadlines, learning, and communication.
  • A google sheet is probably a sufficient tool for doing this, but you’ll find lots of other tools you can use. In a recent startup survey, for this process, 56% use Google Docs; 22% use Trello; 9% use MS Office; and the few others use one of 15Five, Lattice, BetterWorks, Smartsheet, or Confluence.
  • Scope projects properly and don’t dilute your company’s attention with too many initiatives.
    • Projects are expensive in terms of time and cost and will have a long list of impacts across the company that you can’t predict. Try hard to get an accurate view of what it will take to build, support, maintain, and grow.
    • It’s especially difficult for senior managers to scope some of these projects because they haven’t been the ones doing the work for years and may not understand how much work it takes to get something done and to maintain it.
  • The organization needs organization priorities. Each team can’t get its own priorities and can’t optimize for itself. You optimize for the whole not the parts.
  • In a recent survey of 24 NYC startups, 88% have company goals systems. Of those:
    • 48% run their goals process annually
    • 52% run their goals process quarterly

Planning Process Templates and Examples

Now that you have the guidelines, here are the templates and examples:

Annual and Quarterly Planning Process. For the quarterly planning sessions in Q2-Q4, you can remove the annual portions of this. You can take this template, add dates to them, and this becomes your planning plan. This is a fairly heavy planning process. A small company may not need or want all of this. But it’s one way to do it.

Main output from the planning process. This is the central document that the entire company works with. If your planning process targets producing something like this, you’ll be in good shape.

Presentation template for the company on how the planning process works. These are slides you can use to explain the planning process to your company or team. And an actual sample of the template in use.

Project prioritization spreadsheet template #1, Project prioritization spreadsheet template #2. These are two examples of prioritization spreadsheets to compare projects and decide which ones to work on and which ones not work on. These are useful for the quarterly goal setting for teams and for the execution phase of the company Operating System.

Planning, Execution, Project Management Checklist. This is a template for how to manage a project from end-to-end. As part of the planning phase, you’ll want to create project plans for each of your projects. After the work starts, you’ll want to iterate on that project plan. We’ll get into this more in the execution resources.

Team level mission statement with goals. This is a sample team mission statement, with goals and metrics. This can be a really valuable tool for teams to achieve the same goals that the company achieves with its own planning process.

Please share this resource with anyone who might find it valuable!


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