I write (and preach) frequently about the value of different kinds of plans that would benefit professional service firms. This post will focus on how all of those plans would ideally work together.

You’ve probably heard of “top-down” planning, as well as “bottom-up” planning. Each is a valid approach but the best firm planning includes both.

Top-Down Planning

Many firms commence a planning process by requesting that their individual professionals create a personal plan. This is as good a starting place as any for a firm that wants to (but can’t quite yet) operate strategically.   At least individuals will be thinking about what they want to achieve and focussing their efforts on business goals.  However while professionals may be given a sense of direction for their career from this process, this could result in the firm becoming disjointed and unfocused as it then struggles to balance the unconnected needs of all of its practitioners .  Remember that the purpose of professionals practising together in a firm is to take advantage of their collective power to accomplish more than they could individually. That means that ideally, all members of a firm would be rowing in the same direction.  And the best way to ensure that they do is to tell them in which direction the firm would like to head. Starting with the business objectives of the firm as s whole is top-down planning.

  1. A Strategic Plan: A firm-wide strategic business plan identifies what the firm would like to accomplish in a given period of time – usually anywhere from three to ten years. The firm would set big picture goals for such areas as revenue, size of firm, number or type of clients, etc.  It could also set goals for client and professional/staff retention, technology purchases and integration, administrative goals, the launch of a new product or service, etc.
  2. An Annual Business Plan: The strategic plan is used each year to guide the firm toward creation of business goals that the coming year.  Annual business goals declare how far, within the next year, that the firm can go on its path to those five year strategic goals.  All subsequent annual planning takes its lead from this starting point. In other words, it is ill advised for practice or industry groups, or individual lawyers, to do any planning until the firm has declared what its business objectives will be for the coming year.
  3. Practice/Industry Group and Client Team Plans: Each business unit of the firm (such as a practice group, an industry group or a client team) should consider how they might assist the firm with accomplishment of its business goals.  For example, if a firm business objective for the year is to increase their real estate agent client base by 15%, then each business unit should determine if this is a valid target marketing for them and if so, what could their own increase target be and how might they achieve that growth within that practice. Business unit plans would also carry goals and tactics that support the health and well-being of that business unit as well.  Such objectives might relate to specific target clients for that group, improved reputation of the group and its members, ongoing education of its team members, administrative or technical skills and needs, etc.
  4. Personal Plans for Professionals: And finally, individual practitioners should develop personal business plans that include, among other items, a summary of all of the action items for which they will be responsible under their respective practice and industry groups.

As you can see, the firm sets the direction of the firm and then annually, business goals are set and all planning flows down from these goals.

Bottom-Up Planning

Simultaneously, individual practitioners should be considering their annual plan from the perspective of their own longer term strategic objectives.

In the absence of a top-down planning process within their firm, I encourage individuals to none the less create a personal plan. If the firm does have proper planning in place, I still encourage individuals to create a plan; however one of their starting points would be to review the firm’s business objectives for the coming year. While it is assumed that their interests and the firm’s are aligned, that might always the case.  If not, better to find out earlier in your career rather than later.  But in most instances, professionals feel generally supported by their firms, and a firm’s annual business objectives seldom work in opposition to an individual’s desired business objectives.

Just because a professional has a plan does not mean they will be successful. The plan needs to be well designed, and well executed.

A good personal plan includes a mix of your action items on behalf of the practice and industry groups you are in, as well as tactics in support of your own reputation, credibility and personal growth needs. If you participate in the setting of business objectives and tactics for your practice group your action items from those plans will inherently support your work in those areas.  But while these items might assist the group in accomplishing its business goals, they might not go far enough to accomplish the goals you’ve set for yourself.

In fact, before you participate in business unit planning you will be well-served by starting on your own planning. Consider your big picture goals and start to develop a list of tactics that will help you to achieve those goals.  Then when you work with your respective groups on planning, you can actually suggest goals and tactics and put your hand up for any action items that align well with your personal plan.  You may also need to take on a few items that are less about what’s good for your own career and more about what’s good for the group or the firm.  That’s simply part of being within a firm.  But once your plan is complete you will have a very clear sense of why you are doing what you are doing, and generally those result in accomplishment of your tasks and doing them with greater confidence and determination. And that usually provides much better results for your actions.

This idea of doing your personal planning prior to and then in conjunction with practice planning is called bottom-up planning.

Some firms will take the concept further by requesting their business units declare their goals. The firm will then create a compilation of those declarations as the firm’s business goals for the year. While, technically, this does suggest that a firm has an operating plan, in fact it’s not a strategic one.

This can also be a tempting way to create a practice group plan: by asking each lawyer what they are willing to do to support the practice and then pasting those together into a goal document for the group. I’m not a fan of this methodology because again, it’s un-strategic.  Consider a battlefield where the General waited to see who showed up to battle, and with what weapon, in order to determine his battle plan.  Alternatively, the General on the other side focussed on predicting the strengths of his soldiers, the weaknesses of his enemy, and planned for a equipped his soldiers with the appropriate weapons for his strategy. There’s always the chance that the potluck side could win, but in all honesty which side would you rather be on?

The first time a firm and its practitioners plan in this way, there can be some awkward moments when individuals realize they do indeed need to row with their team members when they would prefer to do their own thing. There can also be some challenges when individuals who are very happy to be part of a team none the less realize that their desired path is very different from where the firm would like them to go.   These individuals usually self-select out of the firm in time, and that’s not a bad thing.  It’s likely that their interests and the firm’s were different for some time but no one noticed.

More often, what happens after this planning process is that people start to feel like they are part of a stronger team. Professionals tend to be most comfortable when they understand the context in which they are practising.  Goals and plans make context crystal clear.   This lowers their fear and allows them to see the benefits of more shared marketing and more cross selling.  And eventually, individuals start to appreciate the easy and incredible momentum that occurs when everyone is rowing together toward the same objectives.