Most people think that meetings are a waste of time. They’re right.
The fact is, too many meetings are run poorly, have no real objective, and waste employees’ time — which kills productivity.
I absolutely encourage you to be ruthless in your pursuit of fewer and more efficient meetings. There’s tons of advice out there on how to run better meetings and cut down on useless touch bases that waste time and make your organization move slower.
For example, here at Palo Alto Software, we’ve found one meeting that is simply indispensable. It only takes an hour each month, keeps the management team up to speed on everything that’s going on in the company, and helps us plan and manage in a quick and effective way.
This meeting is our monthly plan review meeting.
What is a plan review meeting?
A monthly review meeting is a time for you and your team to review current progress against your ideal performance. This one-to-two-hour meeting should be spent dissecting parts of your strategy, reviewing financials, and making adjustments based on overall performance. It has been a fixture of our management strategy for years and is simply one of the most effective ways for us to continue to grow the company and adjust our course as necessary.
For us, business planning isn’t just a one-time or annual event. Instead, it’s an ongoing process where we are constantly reviewing and adjusting course as necessary while ensuring that we’re staying on track toward our larger goals.
Why is it important to conduct a monthly plan review?
Every business of any size can benefit from a calculated time to stop, review and revise. When done correctly, this meeting can help you focus on what’s vital for your company, identify what data you need to accurately measure it and how to best present and review these results. Additionally, your monthly plan review process can help your business in the following ways.
Commits your business to learn and act
It can become very easy to let operations and processes become stagnant and standard. Without a regular performance review, any potential problems may remain to fester well beyond when they are first identified. You don’t want to waste company time and resources on things that are ineffective, but it’s difficult to change course without first processing it.
By setting aside this monthly time, it provides the opportunity to commit to learning and adjusting anything and everything. This isn’t based on off-hand information but on solid information and data that helps you identify and evaluate what’s most important for your business.
Engages individuals across your entire business
Depending on how you present this meeting, it has the potential to pull in greater insight from across your business. Whether you’re sharing information company-wide or sticking with select leaders from each department, it immediately expands the scope of expertise.
The more that every leader and employee knows what’s going on with everyone else, the better you can align and produce effective goals. It also provides the opportunity to identify potential solutions or issues from outside your core team’s responsibilities. Maybe your product team sees a potential gap in your marketing messaging. Or someone in HR sees a potential work/life balance misalignment in the sales team. None of this would come to life without a core review meeting like this.
Influences better business conversations
Engaging more people across your business and providing more detailed information typically leads to more fruitful conversations outside the core meeting. Yes, the meeting itself is vital for actively reviewing and adjusting your strategy at the moment. However, this information being top of mind means that potential issues or innovations will be dealt with outside of the planning meeting. This is due to your employees having a clear direction to reference in the day-to-day. They know the strategy and data are up-to-date and that it serves as a north star for their own projects and initiatives.
How to run an effective monthly plan review meeting
We treat planning not as a document, but as a management tool that helps guide decisions and strategy. It’s this mindset that helps our team run these monthly meetings successfully. We have a strategy in place, steps to walk through and key objectives we expect to find.
Here’s a quick overview of how we structure our monthly plan review meetings and what’s worked well for us over the years.
1. Review your financial statements
What financial statements to review
Ideally, you’ll have the opportunity to review all relevant monthly financial statements. At a minimum, you should review your Profit and Loss Statement, Balance Sheet, and Cash Flow Statement. These will provide a high-level overview of your financial position and help identify any obvious anomalies. If possible, it’s valuable to look at these all together through a business dashboard, that way you can immediately start making connections.
With that top-level exploration in mind, you can then start looking into your budget, financial forecast scenarios, and any specific elements that may seem relevant. This may include things like your expense categories, accounts receivable/payable payment schedules, etc.
Look beyond top-line performance
We always spend time drilling into the numbers, beyond the top-line revenue and expenses to better understand what the drivers were behind our performance. Did all product lines perform well? Or did some underperform? Did we spend as planned or were there some areas that we overspent in?
Most importantly, we review our cash position and cash flow. Did we collect money as planned? What does our cash flow forecast look like for the next few months?
There are benefits to looking at financials together
While financial reports can be reviewed outside of a meeting, reviewing them together as a team encourages questions and discussion around our revenue and spending. It also helps you uncover specific issues or opportunities that you may miss on your own. And of course, gives everyone a voice to determine the next steps for the company as well as their specific teams.
Of course, we use LivePlan to review our numbers because it’s much easier than drilling through exported reports from QuickBooks. But if you’re not ready to make that jump, you can always start out with a simple cash flow template in Excel.
2. Reevaluate your milestones
Once we review our financial performance, we review our “major milestones”—the big tasks we had hoped to get done in the past month and our plans for the next month.
We discuss how various teams might be working with each other on different projects and talk about the specific milestones that we have planned. Are these still the tactics that we want to work on that will help achieve our goals? Do we need to shift priorities? Is there new learning and information that would have us change our schedule?
By reviewing major initiatives on a monthly basis, we can stay agile and make changes as needed. That’s also why we review them after parsing through our financials, to determine if our current milestones should still be a priority. As we learn more about our customers and our market, we might shift strategies and develop new milestones.
3. Review your long-term goals and strategy
Next, we review our long-term strategic goals. While this doesn’t change too often in our situation as an established company, new startups might shift their strategy frequently as they search for a business model that works.
For those early-stage startups, this step of the meeting may be the most important step and often takes the longest. For more established companies, this part of the meeting might typically only take a few minutes. This is where having a brief and functional business plan can really help speed up the process.
Instead of delving deep into a 40-page business plan document to review our strategy, we review our our one-page business plan (in LivePlan, it’s called the Pitch). It covers our company identity, the core problem we solve for our customers, our solution, competition, and sales and marketing strategy. It’s all on one page so it’s easy to read, review, and change quickly.
4. Provide time to discuss any company issues
Finally, anyone on the team can bring forward any issues that they want to discuss. This could include new opportunities to consider, prioritization of product features, potential partnerships, or internal HR issues.
Everything is fair game and we try to come up with resolutions and next steps for any issue that’s brought up.
We’ve found that this type of open-ended discussion really helps generate new ideas and brings different perspectives from managers of different teams.
5. Set meeting guidelines
I believe that all companies would benefit from a monthly review of their business. These types of meetings keep everyone on the same page, help share information about progress, and turn planning into a tool that helps teams make informed decisions.
But in order to run these monthly meetings successfully, you’ll need to do some preliminary work to keep you and your team on track. Here are three tips to successfully establish your monthly business plan review.
Put the meeting on the calendar
It’s important to make it a formal event that’s on the schedule. It can’t be optional and it has to be at a regular time so that everyone always knows when the meeting is.
For us, we started out with the meeting on the 3rd Thursday of every month. As our bookkeeping and accounting processes have become more efficient, we’ve been able to move our meeting to the 2nd Friday of the month.
Follow a repeatable agenda
While different topics will come up for discussion, it’s important that your plan review meeting has a repeatable agenda. Not only does it provide structure, but it gives your team specific action items to review beforehand.
That means making sure that you have your numbers ready for review and that your team has updates on their goals. Try to set time limits for each section if you can, and overestimate the length of the meeting with the full intention of finishing earlier than planned. This part will be a continuous work in progress and you and your team will gradually improve your efficiency with each subsequent meeting.
Be prepared to change the plan
These plan review meetings aren’t just about staying the course and blindly following the plan. Instead, they are about adjusting the plan. Perhaps you’ll discover that you should be investing more in marketing, or that you’re going to be able to expand and hire faster than you originally planned.
The plan review meeting is about making adjustments to your goals and strategies based on what you’ve discovered in the past month.
Use your monthly plan review to redefine how you do meetings
Keep in mind that running your meetings more successfully won’t just happen overnight. It takes time to develop a structure that works best for you and your team. As I outlined in this article, the best place to start your meeting restructure is with your monthly plan review meeting.
It’s a necessary review that can be consistently repeated, refined, and adjusted, which makes it the perfect testing ground for a new system.
Editors’ Note: This article was originally written in 2018 and updated for 2021.