Avoiding Fire Drills: A Calendar Template for Wrangling Company Chaos
This "Buzz Calendar" Helps Bring X-Silo Visibility: An "Ounce of Planning is Worth a Pound of Fire Drill"
CMOs hate it when the CEO drops something big in their lap at the last minute. But as marketers, we often fail to plan ahead and predict potential surprises. Marketers have a unique vantage point across the business as the choke point for communications to the company and market. Acquisition? Surprise, drop everything, make it happen and announce it…. CEO just remembered a big company milestone? Surprise, design a company-wide T-shirt by yesterday…. Do you have a user conference in two weeks? Well, this board deck needs to be redesigned right now, too.
To avoid unpleasant surprises and a strung-out marketing team, I found it helpful to become the company-wide calendar owner to prevent as many surprises as possible.
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Learning from the Best
The CMO of Oracle, Judy Sim, had a document and process we called the “Buzz Calendar.” It was a literal 12-month Word calendar we would update with all sorts of things going on in the market and within Oracle. We would meet monthly to look through the calendar to decide if we should add anything to our programs to create more buzz in the market around these events or to prepare ahead of time. This was critical since we had HUNDREDS of products and more than 80,000 employees doing things in all regions at all times.
Over time, I expanded the document and process in the following spreadsheet to incorporate cross-c-suite planning so I could better plan for design fire drills, big communications, and inter-dependent launches that would put pressure on my teams. This is critical in small companies where things move quickly (let’s launch this product in 2 weeks…) and in big companies where many different teams might be planning big projects in non-communicating silos.
Key Aspects of the Template and Process
Having run more than a dozen company buzz calendars over the years, I’ve learned these nuances about planning and output:
External and internal - it’s critical to track both your own company’s plans for product releases, website refreshes, and the like AND world holidays, competitor user conferences, and external moments that could cause a last-minute effort and shuffle. External things especially are forgotten until they’re an emergency.
The Process Is the Value - The act of creating the calendar causes more reflection, insight and diligence, even though when written down, many things seem obvious. The discussion with the C-suite or the relevant team members brings up all sorts of things brewing before they are too far down the path. Seeing all the items together, you can start to time them differently to maximize their impact and minimize overload.
Review Regularly - Like any process, this document is only valuable if it is used and updated regularly. I’ve generally brought this document to C-Suite team meetings and Marketing leadership meetings monthly to update, plan, and initiate discussions.
Integrated Milestones - This is not a team-by-team readout where every team has a section and puts in as many things as possible to show how much of an impact they are making and how busy they are. The best calendar has the integrated milestones many teams are working towards and just links to project plans with more detail. For instance, you don’t need a square for each team’s deliverable in a product launch, just that it’s coming. You don’t need every HR program listed, just those that will cause resource needs from other teams or be a big investment of time for all employees (taking time from other initiatives that month, performance reviews being a key example)
Yin and Yang - One issue I’ve seen is that teams include too much detail in the calendar. I’ve found it’s most valuable if it fits on just a few pages and has big milestones / highlights, not every single project. It’s not a project management template; it’s a birds-eye-view to give you a high-level perspective of what’s in-market and what big items might cause resource conflicts conflicts. Don’t let every team have 10+ line items, keep it to the critical x-functional dependency, big projects. If the calendar gets too busy, it will feel overwhelming, irrelevant to many, and be a pain to update regularly.
World holidays - You might need to be reminded of these so you can remember to start your “Thanksgiving discount” several months in advance. You might want to include different religious or DE&I holidays. Adding them will initiate the conversation of which DO we want to recognize. How do we get parity / consistency in how we approach celebrating some holidays and not others with customers or employees?
Relevant product category holidays — Maybe there's a holiday that makes sense for your industry - World Password Day for 1Password, for instance, was one we didn’t want to forget.
Company milestones - Celebrating and advertising your company's momentum is a great marketing opportunity. Examples were activities when we passed 10,000 customers at Atlassian or Tackle.io’s recent announcement of passing $100B in transaction volume on the clouds. Often, these are buried in a founder or finance person’s head until after they come and surprise us with a big launch fire drill. Look ahead each year and see what might be available for promotion.
Product launches - Most important category! Everyone needs to plan around these. But it would be great if product could also plan to launch around big market moments like user conferences or industry conferences. Sharing our plans x-silo helps make this possible.
Company events - User conferences, Sales Kick-Offs, Roadshow tours, etc.
Major industry conferences - You should add anywhere you’re a speaker or anywhere you’re concerned that competitors might be launching news or the market will have buzz around you. Even if you’re not sponsoring, but it’s a big one on your radar, consider adding it.
Competitors’ conferences or big announcements - These are easy to lose track of in the flurry of everything, and sometimes, as with product announcements, you might not have much visibility. But to the degree you can research, capture, and plan around them!
Big HR initiative roll-outs - Sometimes HR has something big they are rolling out that will require help from other teams (a new employer brand, a new DE&I program). Other times, HR will have regular initiatives that just take up a lot of leader time and effort, reducing capacity for other launches (performance reviews, equity evaluations, etc.) Capturing them helps you balance everything on your plate.
Marketing Campaigns - Sharing these ahead of time helps build momentum and visibility and ensure that they are aligned with other big company timing considerations.
Quarterly Business Reviews - Like big HR initiatives, these can reduce capacity. It’s helpful to see them in the context of the month they will impact.
Board Meetings / Calls - One of the most common CEO→CMO fire drills is the last-minute question for the board meeting or call. But these are often scheduled MONTHS in advance. If you have them on the calendar, you can think ahead about what might be needed or reserve some time “just in case”
Big sales moments - Often, I capture sales kickoff in our “events” section, but it might be that you have the need for a sales category for projects that require help from other teams or will impact capacity in sales to, say, roll out a new marketing program.
As companies scale, more and more people are trying to do all sorts of things in all directions. As much as we would like to just “focus on our work,” - a company is an inter-connected web of dependencies. When we plan for all the ‘big things’ where we need one another’s help, we can avoid more fire drills, deliver higher-quality work, and ensure that we’re prioritizing the right thing at the right time.
Thoughts? What else would you track on a buzz calendar?
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