As 2014 winds down, our thoughts inevitably turn to 2015.  How do we make it a great year?  What challenges will present themselves? What are our most important priorities?

Too frequently, the annual planning process is, essentially, a budgeting exercise. Management issues worksheets that need to be filled in, and each department scrambles to enter numbers before a deadline.

When budgeting drives planning, we tend to think only of the tactical efforts that cost money, and often ignore the strategic thinking that should drive the entire process (but doesn’t have hard costs associated with it).

Even if you’ve already completed your annual budget, it’s not too late to do some important thinking about 2015. Here are a few steps you can follow:

Step 1: Ask “What could be?”

First, open yourself up to possibilities. Forecasting and budgeting are scary, because there are penalties for not reaching a forecast or for overspending a budget. However, when you allow yourself to ask, “What could be?” you make it possible to explore possibilities for success that a perfunctory, bureaucratic budgeting-driven process will never enable you to see.

Imagine it is late December 2015, and you and your colleagues are looking at some reports that describe the incredible success you had during the year. What is on those reports? If 2015 is your best year ever, what did you achieve?

The trick to doing this exercise is to aim high. You are not committing to the success you are describing, you are only describing it so you can open yourself up to the possibilities that lie in front of you.

Step 2: Review the possibilities

Chances are you will describe more successes than you can possibly accomplish. That’s ok. As a second step, review the list of successes you wrote down and rank them, based on value and the likelihood they could be realized.

Step 3: Identify which customers are most important to this success

You will succeed in 2015 only if your customers act in ways that drive that success. Your results are actually the results of customer action.

Who are the customers that are most important to your success in 2015? Are you paying adequate attention to those customers, or is your company’s time distracted by directing disproportionate attention to unimportant customers?

Step 4: Determine how to motivate these customers to act

Everything you do– making products, delivering services, communicating with customers– should be designed with one goal in mind: Motivating customers to act in ways that drive your results.

Look back at the list of items on the budget you recently completed. Is this the optimal set of customer-motivating activities?  Or is it the list that made the most sense in terms of what you did last year and how much budget you have allocated for next year?

Step 5: Change the budget numbers you handed in a few weeks ago

Next, it’s time to revamp your strategies and plans for 2015, based on what you identified in the previous steps. Does this require you to edit the budget you completed? Probably.  Will that be easy, based on your company’s processes and deadlines?  Probably not.

But then again, 2015 is a year of possibilities, and you wouldn’t want a mere budgeting process to get in the way of creating the best success possible for next year.

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