Setting a coherent strategy for your company is important.
And getting everyone on your team to row in the same direction is essential to achieve your goals.
However, creating strategy alignment across a company, and within teams is not trivial.
At SessionLab, we had our round of struggles with quarterly planning and goal setting as our company was scaling from a founder-driven, few people operations to a more structured and process-driven organization.
In this article I will share the insights we learned from designing and facilitating our quarterly goals setting and alignment process. After a couple of quarters of iterations, we’re happy with a format that seems to work and scale well, starting from 5 to 50 team members.
Each year we organize and facilitate an annual goal setting an alignment process to set our focus areas for the upcoming year. This clarifies the big goals to orient our team.
But next to that, we execute in a quarterly basis, so there is an alignment process in the beginning of each quarter to define our company’s focus (where annual goals give a strong direction) and more specifically set priorities for each of our teams
Why quarterly? – It is a natural phenomenon that individuals and teams gradually get off track and lose focus roughly every 90 days. At the beginning of a quarter, we’re all clear on what is important, and what to de-prioritise. But as weeks go on, new information comes, exciting new opportunities appear and alignment decays. Every 90 days, it’s good to bring the team together and make sure we are all focused to work on the things that matter to us.
So in each quarter our company aligns, first on company level priorities, and then each team (Product, Marketing, Customer Growth, Operations) on their own priorities. And since we are an entirely remote team spread across Europe, these alignment sessions are a huge part in making sure that our teams work in sync with each other.
Since the beginning of 2022, we’re following the guidelines of the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) as a framework to run our company.
The reason we chose this framework was that – other than being recommended by several other bootstrapped SaaS founders – is it is a comprehensive enough toolkit to run and scale a company. It not only gives a process on how to set goals, but also gives specific recipes on how to design and manage our organization and how to run specific meetings.
Speaking of the goal setting process itself, there are several other frameworks that are very similar. Probably the most widely known is the system of Objectives & Key Results (OKRs).
OKRs also give a method on how to set Objectives and Key Results for teams and individuals. And EOS has a very similar concept: the priorities that a team or individual sets are called Rocks (similar to Objectives), and each Rock should be phrased clearly (just as Key Results), so that at the end of the quarter, there is no ambiguity whether it was done or not.
Why are the main priorities called Rocks? This is based on the following metaphor:
“Imagine an empty cylinder, in which you can add four types of materials: rocks, gravel, sand and water. The cylinder represents the time (capacity) your team has. Rocks represent your big priorities, gravel represents your day-to-day responsibilities, sand represents interruptions, and water is everything else that comes up and you have to deal with.
If you start filling in the cylinder first with water, and then sand, and then gravel, then you will have limited space left for rocks. But if you first put the rocks in, and then fill the rest with the gravel, sand and water, then you managed to make space for your big priorities.
The takeaway is to first work on the biggest priorities. And the rest falls in place. (This is true not just for quarterly planning, but a useful tactics for making progress every day, too)
In my personal opinion, it doesn’t matter much whether you call your main priorities Rocks, Objectives, Goals or simply Priorities. As long as everyone on your team understands what you want to achieve, and there is a clear way to measure whether you achieve it or not by the end of your planned period.
For the sake of consistency, I will keep referring to these big priorities as Rocks in this article.
Rocks & Metrics
Although the book recommends setting Rocks that are clearly measurable, so far we found it more practical to phrase the Rocks in a way that they clearly communicate the direction of action to take. And for each Rock, we define a Target Metric, which is the specific target we want to achieve.
The specific workshop process you will see below is ideally preceded by a couple of steps:
1) Clarity on annual goals
Company level annual goals were set by the leadership team and are clearly communicated across the organization.
The Entrepreneurial Operating System contains a practical guide on how to run the annual goal setting for the company by its leadership team.
2) Set company-level Rocks for the quarter
The process for setting priorities on a company level (i.e. the overarching big goals that are the most important for the company) is very similar to the team/department specific goal setting process outlined below.
It is an activity we do with the leadership team as the first step in our quarterly planning process, and its output is usually 5 to 7 main priorities (Company-level Rocks) that are the most important for our team to focus on during the upcoming quarter.
These company level Rocks are then presented to the full team, together with a Recap of the previous quarter, a couple of days before starting the following workshop.
3) Bring the team on the same page
A precondition for effective goal setting for any team is that members have a shared understanding of how the business overall and also their respective unit is performing.
Therefore, before we kick off our series of team-specific quarterly goal setting workshops, we present the following pieces to the whole team:
- Recap of how the last quarter went:
- Everybody shares the final results of the Rocks they were responsible for
- An overview of the main business KPIs
- A coherent narrative on how we are doing and what are the main challenges for the business.
- Recap of our annual goals
- The company-level Rocks set for the quarter
Overall, this is quite some information to present to the team, combined with giving space for questions and discussions.
So far we have done this during an extended all-hands meeting (with several interactive elements sprinkled throughout – energisers, a quiz on business KPIs, breaks).
However, in the spirit of embracing asynchronous communication for our fully remote team, we’re planning to do it more asynchronously next time: All the presentations can be simply recorded and then shared with the team, so everyone can watch it at a convenient time. In this case, we would just schedule time for discussions at one of our all-hands meetings, and/or run the Q&A on our internal communication tool – Slack in our case.
The outcomes we want to achieve are that all members of the company are:
- Have access to most important facts & figures about the past quarter’s performance
- Understand what we achieved, see a narrative around it, so it’s a cohesive story pointing to your main business needs
- Be aware of what are the company-level main goals for the next quarter, so people can already think about what team-level and individual goals and actions would help to move things forward.
After all these preparations, we are at the right place to kick-off a planning workshop for each department / team of the company.
The goal of this workshop is to align team members on what should be the priorities they collectively focus on in the coming period. There are a few important considerations here:
- Each team should set no more than seven Rocks. Go beyond that, and there is an exponentially increasing likelihood of the team’s attention getting scattered, and several Rocks not getting achieved. Less is more when it comes to focus.
- Company Rocks should be supported by Department Rocks. The reason Company Rocks are set first is that they are the most important goals for the whole organization in the quarter. They should take absolute priority over other initiatives. Usually it results in several Department Rocks being in direct connection with these Company Rocks. And usually there is space for a few other initiatives, too.
- Get everyone involved and heard. The goal setting workshop detailed below is by design a participatory process, where every team member gets the opportunity to share their opinion on what matters and what to work on. The best way to get a team working together in the same direction is if everyone feels an ownership of the decision about the Department Rocks.
- Align about what to work on, and what not to work on. The result of the decision making process is that everyone on the team understands why to prioritize certain initiatives in the upcoming quarter, and just as importantly, see why some other – potentially reasonable – initiatives would not be prioritized in order to stay focused. Related discussions will also help the team to understand what may get on the agenda in the further future, and what are the bottlenecks to resolve before being able to dedicate focus for a specific initiative.
This can be achieved with a 1.5 – 3 hours long process, depending on the size of your team. (Get the detailed workshop agenda here or by clicking on the image below)
Credits for Gino Wickman and his team for the core process of this workshop laid out in their book: Traction: Get a Grip On Your Business, which we adjusted into a more generic quarterly alignment process that works across our company in different teams.
As a facilitator, you welcome people joining the call (or live meeting), and explain the purpose of the session.
It is a good idea to run a check-in round, so everyone is getting the chance to speak at the beginning. To combine social check-in with already getting into the subject, I tend to ask people two briefly share about two things:
- How are you feeling today?
- Expectations: What do you expect from today’s workshop? -> this allows anyone to air potential questions or observations
A transparent process usually helps people to understand how to contribute at the different stages of the session, so I briefly walk them through the agenda: First we collect ideas -> present and discuss those -> cluster and narrow down -> indicative voting -> Dept. head picks Rocks -> detailing them -> polling appetite to contribute.
Speaking of the agenda, it’s also useful to add a note about breaks: Since this is a quite involved activity for the whole team, plan at least a short break in the middle, and encourage everyone to speak up they need it sooner, need more break, or if they feel their energy level is getting lower.
Finally, before we kick off with the first activity, quickly recap and make sure that everyone’s role is clear. It is a good opportunity to show the Accountability (Org) chart of the organization to put into perspective, what is the scope we are dealing with in this workshop:
- Outline the organizational responsibilities of the team
- Clarify who is here wearing what hat. For most team members this will be clear: they are contributors in their respective departments. But this is especially important if anyone is acting in multiple roles, for instance if the Facilitator is also a Team member/contributor.
We start by giving the opportunity for everyone to list all the things they think we should do in the upcoming quarter. One idea per one post-it note.
These items can include high-level objectives, and also specific tasks – and anywhere in between. Don’t worry too much about the granularity of the input here, this will be clustered later on. If anyone gives very specific ideas on what to do, it’s a useful point to help everyone understand what concrete actions might happen under the Rocks that will be set later..
Around 15 minutes is usually enough for everyone to list the things they find important. In a live workshop setting, start by giving 12 minutes to the team to silently brainstorm individually. And at the end, ask if anyone needs a couple of minutes more to finish, and extend if needed.
Tip: This can be done as a preparation task before the workshop starts. It saves 15 minutes from your live agenda, and allows people to work at their own pace at a time when they feel most productive to think about strategy and goals.
Depending on the size of your team, it usually results in having 15-70 items listed on your whiteboard.
Everyone gets the opportunity here to present the items they noted down to do in this quarter. Depending on the number of items you see on the whiteboard, you may want to timebox this exercise. But roughly 5 minutes per person should be enough.
Tip: Start from the least experienced team member towards the more experienced team members, finishing with the leader of the team.
This allows more space and attention for fresher team members to express their thoughts without any pressure to conform with ideas mentioned by more experienced team members.
Finally the leader of the department comes last, so she is able to refer back to items suggested by other team members and connect them together – effectively starting the clustering of the next phase.
When people present their items, encourage them to start clustering by putting their own notes next to already posted similar ones.
As a facilitator, you can help this by asking participants to simply read and explain their own notes, while it is you as the facilitator who moves them to the right area of the whiteboard where already presented ideas are stored – and gradually getting clustered.
After the round of presentation is done, consider if it is time for a break. If you have more than five participants, and you’ve done the brainstorming in live, then you’re likely beyond the one-hour mark at this point, with generally low attention level after ~30 mins of presenting idea
Usually a rudimentary level of grouping starts to emerge as team members present their own ideas. But most likely, there is still work to be done in order to weed out duplications.
The goal is to get to a state on the whiteboard that allows every team member to vote on initiatives, without splitting their votes between overlapping items.
A simple way to do this is to group related items together, and leave the most descriptive post-it note on the top of the list.
Tip: arrange the distinct items including titles for groups/clusters in one row, so then everyone will only vote on the items in the top row.
After clustering initiatives, the cluster titles are arranged in the top line and color coded, to make voting easier
Alternatively, you can also indicate with a different color, which are the ‘heading’ items for each cluster. Either way, what you want to achieve here is that there is a clear and distinct list of initiatives that people can vote on in the next step.
This clustering is most often led by the head of the department, while anyone else is encouraged to help and make suggestions on how to merge related items.
The accompanying discussions give a good opportunity to explain and clarify the potential connections between different initiatives.
It is time to allow everyone to weigh on what they think the most important priorities are and prepare the floor for decision making. The simplest way to do this is with an indicative dot-voting.
Each team member gets a certain number of votes to cast on the initiatives they find most important, usually between 4 to 7 votes per person, depending on the number of vote-eligible initiatives on the board.
Some virtual whiteboard tools have built-in voting functionality, and in an in-person setup just give sticky voting dots to participants.
Importantly, remind participants about which items can be voted upon – this should be visually clear by this point on the board.
Tip: You can decide whether to allow people to cast multiple votes on the same item. (If something is an absolutely essential thing to do, this is a way to express it.)
This is an indicative voting, because the voting result itself does not automatically determine which items will be elevated into a Rock status, i.e. a priority for the quarter, but it gives an indication of the overall preferences of the team.
This responsibility is set aside for the leader of the team to decide on the final rocks, considering the voting results, and the potential dependencies and synergies between different projects, as well as resources available.
Sensible EOS recommendation: max 7 Rocks for a team.
After seeing the indicative priorities for the full team, the team leader proceeds with picking up those initiatives that will become a Rock (priority) for the team.
If needed, you may give a few minutes of thinking time to the team leader, but often this will be clear by the time you start with this segment of the workshop.
Despite the rule of maximum 7 Rocks, I advise to only take the 3-4 most important items at first. By the time these get clarified, the team will have a much better idea of how much bandwidth they have left for less important initiatives.
So the mission here is for each of these Rock to:
Align what they really mean – i.e. what is the likely scope. Some initiatives may have up to dozen ideas listed under them in the previous phases, and getting clarify of what you actually want to achieve is important.
Therefore, we want to define two things:
- The Title of the Rock, which should be a short and clear description to show the focus of the work.
- Metrics -> what is the state you want to achieve. This is typically a measurable thing, or the completion of a checklist
By trying to clarify the metric, there is often a good discussion that uncovers what are the things we want, and what we do not want to achieve here.
Importantly, aligning on all executional details is not the purpose here. If you pick the right metrics, that will help the team – and in particular, the owner of the Rock – to devise the plan how to achieve it.
After the team has clarified the first 3-4 Rocks, it’s time to take a breath. As a facilitator, recap the current priorities (Rocks) the team agreed on, and let this sink in a bit.
Tip: As a facilitator, at this point it is useful to take a conservative and resource-aware perspective. The team will usually be enthusiastic about adding a lot of ambitious goals, but too many focus areas often leads to nothing getting enough attention.
After recapping the so-far-agreed Rocks, call again for the team lead to identify what further initiatives should make it into a Rock. As the team progresses through the obvious items, increase the level of scrutiny applied to wanting to take on new items.
From here on, it can get to be quite an iterative process. The team may reveal that there are synergies between certain initiatives and therefore it makes sense to do them together. Or they may understand that there are dependencies or resource constraints, and they have to remove something they already picked.
It is also okay if the specific targets for the key metrics are set as a follow-up after the session, in case it requires looking up certain data. The main thing is that the team is clear on what they want to achieve.
Celebrate after the list of Rocks is ready!
One of the important outcomes of this workshop is to get the team aligned on the priorities, while the other is to allow effectively kick off the work for the upcoming quarter.
This implies that we have clarity on who owns which initiative and how to sequence the work over the next period. For this, it’s important to see which team members would contribute to which Rock.
Team members can simply express what is their level of interest to contribute, or to potentially own a Rock.
There is a simple way to do this: Everybody is assigned a colorful voting dot (a simple round shaped post-it note on the board). Ask people to write their name on it, and create as many copies of that as they will need. Then everybody looks at the Rocks set for the quarter, and places the dots under those ones that they are interested in contributing to.
The more interested they are in working on that Rock, the higher they should put their dot. This way team members can easily express if they want to be very involved in doing something, or just want to take a smaller part, or not be part of that initiative at all.
Wrap this up by a round of verbal recap: everybody gets a half a minute to recap their choice.
The end result is that everyone can see, who wants to contribute to a specific initiative, and it also makes it easier for the team leader to decide on how to distribute the ownership of Rocks within the team.
Usually, we prefer not to hand out / assign the ownership of the Rocks right away, but give the opportunity of review for the team leader to think through what would be the ideal distribution, and check questionable items with each team member, before publicly assigning responsibilities to them.
(There are several considerations here, such as individual skills, other ongoing work responsibilities, personal development goals)
So this tends to get clarified within a day or two, so by the time we share about our quarterly Rocks on the next company all-hands meetings, everyone is able to present their own Rock.
After the Rocks are set and everyone has picked their interests, it is time to close the session.
It is a great practice to ask feedback after each workshop, and it’s especially important to do it for such an important one that sets a teams direction for an entire quarter.
There are different ways to do it, starting from low-effort and instant methods such as the One-Breath-Feedback or a simple meeting closing round, ranging to setting up a dedicated reflection board where people answer multiple questions about what they liked and what they missed in the process.
Lastly, this is a workshop that is meant to align the team to reach for the save goals in the next three months, so it’s important to get people leaving the room energized.
Consider adding a simple energiser or ritual at the end. In our case, we closed the session with audio-sharing We Will Rock You from Queen – as we have just set a group of Rocks for the upcoming quarter!
Would you like to run this session with your own team?
Get the ready-to-use agenda below:
Do you have any feedback on this process? Have you tried it with your team?
Let us know in the comments below!