How to sell the move away from annual planning

By David Parmenter

As we will know from past experiences this sales process is not easy and can be prone to failure.  I would argue that more than half the initiatives that are declined, at the concept stage, were under sold.  In other words, given the right approach the initiative would have gone ahead.

If you are not prepared to learn the skills to cover the common deficiencies in a selling change process I would argue that you are resigning yourself to providing the same services level for years to come.  Selling change requires a special set of skills and we all can and should get better at it.  There are 8 steps you need to take.

1. Read two books that have opened the way for us to rethink change and to apply their techniques .

Zaffron and Logan’s “The three laws of performance”

Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan in their book “The Three Laws of Performance[i]” have written a compelling book that explains why so many of these initiatives have failed.  The first law is “How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them.” The writers point out that the organization’s “default future” which, we as individuals just know in our bones, will happen – will be made to happen.  Thus, in an organization, with a systemic problem, the organization’s staff will be driven to make initiatives fail, so that the default future prevails.

They went on to say that is why the more you change the more you stay the same.  The key to change is to recreate, in the organization’s staff minds, a new vision of the future, let’s call it an “invented future”.

Zaffron and Logan signal the importance of language (the second law), without language we would not have a past or a future.  It is the ability to use language that enables us to have a past or a future. Without language, we would be like the cat on the mat, sunning themselves for yet another afternoon, thinking about our next meal but without the ability to process complex thought.

They then say to make change we need to talk using a future-based language (the third law).  It is interesting, if you listen to the outstanding orators of the past like Sir Winston Churchill, you will hear future based language at work.  These great speakers knew, intuitively, about the power of future based language.

“___We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender__” Sir Winston Churchill

Leading change by John Kotter

In 1996, John Kotter published “Leading Change[ii],” which quickly became the seminal work in the field of change management. He pointed out that effecting change — real, transformative change — is hard. Kotter proposed an eight-stage process for creating major change, a clear map to follow when persuading an organization to move.

I will discuss each Kotter stage while at the same time, embedding Zaffron & Logan’s thinking. If you follow these stages you will increase the changes of change projects many fold.

Establish a sense of urgency— Here we need to appeal both to the intellectual and the emotional sides of the executive team.  There are two stages. Firstly, ambushing the CEO with a compelling elevator pitch so you get to stage two.  Secondly, delivering a masterful sales presentation, of around 15-20 minutes, aimed at obtaining permission to run a focus group to assess, validate and scope the proposed initiative.

Create a guiding coalition— In every organization you have oracles; those individuals everyone refers you to when you need something answered (e.g., “You need to talk to Pat”).   These oracles exist right across the organization and may hold, seemingly unimportant positions.  Do not be fooled.

An investment at this stage is paramount.  In one case study, an organization held three, two-week workshops which were held for their planning tool implementation.  Yes, that is six weeks of workshops.  The CEO was present for part of each the workshops and the wisdom from the oracles was channelled, by an expert facilitator, into a successful blueprint for the project.

No project will ever succeed without a guiding coalition of oracles behind it.  In “The Three Laws of Performance” Zaffron and Logan point out that when you present the “burning platform” you are aiming for an overwhelming “Hell No” response upon asking the question “Do you want this future?” The oracles want the alternative future which you have also articulated.

Develop a vision and strategy— In order for the journey to be seen and resources made available, we must master future-based language that is compelling and motivational. Zaffron and Logan signify the importance of language (the second law) and that it is crucial that you talk using a future-based language (the third law).

Communicate the change vision — Kotter emphasized that it’s not likely that you will under-communicate a little bit; you will probably under-communicate a lot, by a factor of 10 to 100 times. This will undermine your initiative, no matter how well planned.  During a project, the project leader needs to obtain permission from the CEO to gate crash any gathering in the organization and have a ten-minute slot to outline the project and progress to date. One sure fire way to failure is to believe that staff will read your project newsletters and emails.

Whatever you have done in the past it will not have been enough. Follow Kotter’s advice and attempt to over communicate rather than under communicate. Use the mediums that work for your audience. Do not sit behind a vast array of tweets, emails, Facebook entries. You must merge this with “walking the talk”.

Most projects make inroads and have quick wins, albeit few have a project leader that recognises them, celebrates them or worse communicates them. Make sure you have an elevator speech, updated each week, so you can spread the good news, whoever you meet in your daily travels.

Empower broad-based action— Early on the need for change and the right to change must be handed over to teams within the organization. Zaffron and Logan concur with this view. Once the invented future is set in the minds of the organization’s staff, the staff will march towards this future. All the great writers have emphasized that some chaos is good so let teams embrace the project in their own way.

Generate quick wins— Obvious to us all but frequently missed.  Always remember that senior management are, on occasion, inflicted by attention deficit disorder. Progress in a methodical and introverted way at your peril.  We need easy wins, celebrated extrovertly, and we need to ensure we set up the CEO to score the easy goals.

Consolidate gains and produce more change — This is the fly-wheel affect so well put by Jim Collins in his books “Built to last” and” Good to Great”. When the staff are working in unison the fly wheel of change will turn quicker and quicker. This was very evident in the case study where they had six weeks of coalition building workshops.

Anchor new approaches in the culture— Make heroes of the change agents, make sure their values are embedded in the corporate values and now ensure we weed out those in management who have not embraced the change and who, over time, will be dowsing the fire at night when nobody is looking.

2. Sell by appealing to the emotional drivers of the buyer

To sell any concept you need to remember that nothing was ever sold by logic! You sell through emotional drivers (e.g., remember how the dealer sold you a car). Thus, we need to radically alter the way we pitch this sale to the senior management team (SMT), to the CEO and to the board. We must focus on the emotional drivers that matter to these groups.

Rarely is anything sold by logic. Sales are made with emotional drivers. Many finance team initiatives fail because the team attempts to change the culture through selling by logic and issuing commands. It does not work. The planning tool project needs a public relations machine behind it. No presentation, email, memo or paper should go out unless it has been vetted with the help of a PR expert. All your presentations should be tailored to suit the emotional drivers of your different audiences, and these should be tested in front of the PR expert. I believe you could contract this service for less than four days of fees for the whole project and not regret it. To understand selling by emotional drivers, consider how a car salesperson sells cars. 


Three customers on the same day arrive to look at the “car of the week” that has been featured in the local newspaper. The salesperson does not sell the car by logic (price, features, car reviews); instead, he or she tailors the approach to the buyer’s emotional drivers.

The first person is a young information technology guru from the Y generation with the latest designer gear, baggy trousers proudly showing the designer label on his boxer shorts. The salesperson first ascertains that this young professional has enough resources and with some probing finds out that he is a highly paid IT specialist. The salesperson is looking for signs of the potential buyer’s feelings and beliefs, such as clothing, the car that the prospect arrived in and more.

The sales pitch could be targeted on the performance and handling of the car and the prowess of the young professional’s driving skills. The opening line could be, “Have you had any experience driving powerful cars around a track?” “Great, you will need to have the skills of a racing driver to handle the 280 BHP, the twin turbo and the phenomenal cornering.” Sold.

The second person could be me, with my grey hair visible. The salesperson would say, “This car is the safest car on this car lot. It has a five-star rating for safety, eight air bags, enough power to get you out of trouble, unbelievable braking when you have to avoid the idiots on the road and a cornering capability that will keep you on your side of the road, no matter how you come into the corner.” Sold.

The third person, with Italian designer clothing and leather briefcase, such as a highly paid SAP consultant, is asked to sit in the car. The focus is on the luxury. “This car has won many awards for its design. See the quality of the leather finish? It is Italian leather like your immaculate briefcase. You will notice that everything is in the right place. If you don’t mind me saying, Pat, you look a million dollars in your outfit, and I can assure you that every time you drive this car you will feel like a million dollars.” Sold.

How would accountants sell the car? I often joke to accountants that they would be so busy, buried in a monster spreadsheet, that on sighting a customer, they would slump their shoulders in a resigned way while thinking, “This is the last thing I need.” Walking up to the customer, they would remember that they needed to smile and appear welcoming. However, the frowns on their forehead would give the game away.

They would point out to the customer, “As you know, this car has been reduced by another $5,000 and it is full of features as you would expect in this top-of-the-line car. I have listed all the features on the window and have printed Jeremy Clarkson’s review: his only five star rating this year.” Handing over the keys, they would say, “Make yourself comfortable, start the car and if you are still interested, come over to my office and I will take you out for a test drive.”

I can assure you that selling by logic seldom works and is the prime reason why many initiatives put forward by the finance team fail.

3. Use template presentation to sell to the C-Suite and the Board

Before we venture to speed up the annual budgeting, we will need to sell the change to the SMT and Board. We need to radically alter the way we pitch a sale to the SMT and the Board.  We first have to make sure we have a good proposal with a sound focus on the emotional drivers that matter to them. We then need to focus on selling to the thought leader on the SMT and Board before we present the proposal.  This may take a couple of months of informal meetings, sending copies of appropriate articles, telling better practice stories etc to awake the interest.

It is important to sell to management why a quick annual budget is a good annual budget. This is not particularly difficult because I have yet to find a manager who enjoys the process or finds it rewarding and worthwhile. The difficulty is that while they will concur with the concept, getting them to change old and embedded bad practices requires a culture change.

It is worth noting that the thought leader of the SMT and Board may not be the CEO or Chairman respectively!!  Having pre-sold the change to the thought leader watch, after delivering your presentation, how the meeting turns to listen to the thought leader’s speech of support. Your proposal now has the best possible chance of a positive vote.

Here are some of the emotional drivers around the annual budgeting process:

  • the huge cost associated with the annual budgeting – estimate on the high side as costs motivate Boards
  • staff have many evenings / weekends away from family and friends completing an annual budget that is obsolete 3 months later
  • leads to dysfunctional budget holder behaviour and encourages the building of silos
  • creates conflict between budget holders themselves, between the SMT and the Board and between and the Finance team and the Budget holders
  • smart organisations do not have an annual budgeting process anymore

Quick annual budgeting:

  • improves month-end reporting as monthly targets are set quarterly in advance
  • makes it a more positive exercise for all concerned
  • will improve forecasting accuracy through improved forecasting procedures
  • will give budget holders more time to deliver the services are employed to do
  • will give the finance staff more time for analysis, decision-making and forecasting during the year

A draft presentation has been prepared in  to assist you with this process.

4. Have a well prepared elevator speech

Having now understood why prior initiatives have failed through poor selling let us now look at how we get the SMT motivated. The key is to have a twenty second elevator speech that is designed to capture their attention. It must be ready so that when we next bump into the decision makers we are practised and ready.

The twenty second elevator speech is designed to capture their attention. The term came about in management books describing how you need to be able to get a point across in an elevator ride, as sometimes these are the only chance you may have to get through to a decision maker.  The aim is as they walk away they ask you to come to their office in the next few days to discuss this further.

An elevator interaction might go like this.  In answer to the question what you have been up to, or any other inroad to a conversation try something like this.

“I am troubled”. “Why is that?” being the natural response from the CEO.  To which you reply, “I have just been looking at _______________and I have estimated that over the next 10 years we will be spending $__M and $__M on this if we do nothing.  I have been researching a new approach, tried and tested elsewhere, which would save much of this cost.  I just need 15 minutes of your time to explain this.”


“I have been looking at a new approach to planning, it will produce an annual plan in two weeks, make the allocation of resources more transparent and appropriate, and improve our monthly reporting.  The methodology called quarterly rolling planning will save us over $m per year in time and accelerate our progress on the good to great journey.  I would welcome the opportunity to have twenty minutes with you; I have ten slides prepared that I am sure will be of interest.”

The key is to fine tune the elevator speech so that it is compelling.  I recommend you practise your elevator speech at least twenty times so that it is focused and no longer than twenty seconds. As Kotter, says we need to create a sense of urgency and connect both intellectually and emotionally.

5. Sell the need for a one-day focus group workshop

Assuming we may now have got a certain level of interest we now have to prepare a presentation that focuses getting the SMT to agree to a focus group workshop where all the concepts can be aired in front of the organisation’s oracles. The individuals everyone refers you to when you need something answered (e.g., “You need to talk to Pat”).

Then, as part of the sale process, point out to the SMT that annual planning:

Dysfunction Is an annual funding regime where budget holders are encouraged to be dysfunctional building silos and barriers to success
Poor monthly targets Creates monthly budgets set in the annual plan bearing no relation to reality
Too long Takes too long – often a three-month period where management is not particularly productive
Too Costly Costs too much – annual planning costs in time alone runs into the millions each year for larger organisations
Out of date Is out of date as soon as the ink has dried – the plan often needs to be updated during the year to reflect the dynamic and a rapidly changing environment we work in.
Not lean Is an “anti-lean” process

6. Deliver a compelling burning platform presentation

Assuming the elevator speech has given us an audience, we need to prepare and deliver a presentation that will get the senior management team to agree to holding a focus group workshop with the organization’s “oracles,” this presentation having been vetted by a PR expert and practiced many times. The argument being, “If I can convince the oracles that this project will work, and get their involvement in the project plan, I can table back to you a project that has a greater chance of success.”— The organization’s “oracles” being those “go to” individuals everyone refers you to when you need to get something done.

It’s important to get this presentation right, because you will probably not get a second chance. Thus, one needs to embrace the better practices around “winning” presentations.

I have recently read “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience” by Carmine Gallo[iii].  It is a compelling read.  I have incorporated his work along with the work of Nancy Duarte’s “Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations” [iv]and Garr Reynolds’ “Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery[v] in creating a list of the top 25 tips to deliver compelling presentations.  This checklist is included in Appendix 6.

You will be able to secure more time with this presentation, between 30-40 minutes is ideal.

7. Pre-selling to an influential member of the decision team

You need to ascertain who in the meeting is a wise oracle that the CEO will turn to and who is accessible to you.  Visit them and ask for their assistance. Sell the project to them that this could be a great legacy system.  You need them to be committed. Once you have a level of commitment ask them for their input into the presentation.  On a regular basis show them the slides and, at the right moment ask them whether you could do a practise in front of them.  Their feedback will be most valuable.  Use all their suggestions and lock in on their wording.  They will begin to fall in love with the presentation recognising their contribution.

Before the presentation ask them for their guidance to get the meeting over the line.  You will most likely be told that they will be happy to speak first, offering their support.

Now this is where you subtlety suggest some points you would like them to emphasise.  Nobody can now say you did not give this your full attention.

8. Practise, practise, practise

To really score in such presentations I would recommend attending a Train the trainer session. You will learn useful tricks to engage the senior management team.

Durante recommends for a high impact one-hour presentation you should invest 90 hours. 30 hours in the planning (collecting ideas, organizing ideas and sketching the story), 30 hours designing presentation and 30 hours practising.

For a 15-20-minute pitch to the CEO at least 10 practices in front of a test audience.

[i] Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan in their book “The Three Laws of Performance” Jossey Bass 2009

[ii] John Kotter “Leading Change” Harvard Business Review Press 2012

[iii] Carmine Gallo “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience” McGraw-Hill Education; 2009

[iv] Nancy Duarte’s “Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations” O’Reilly Media; 2008

[v] Garr Reynolds’ “Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery” New Riders; 2nd edition, 2011

The toolkit is on sale (over 40% discount)

The reasons why  annual planning and budgeting is broken is further explored in  “An Annual Plan in Two Weeks or Less Toolkit” (Whitepaper + e-templates).

To look inside the toolkit  and   buy the toolkit

I would recommend you view Bjarte Bogsnes’ presentation  on ‘Beyond Budgeting – business agility in practice’

Beyond Budgeting – an agile management model for new business and people – Bjarte Bogsne, at USI

Also read:

[i] Jeremy Hope and Robin Fraser, Beyond Budgeting: How Managers Can Break Free from the Annual Perfo