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Passion, People and Principles

The Three-Month Rule

post # 326 — March 8, 2007 — a Client Relations, Managing post

Plans and reviews ought to be conducted on a once-every-three-month cycle.

Once a year is, of course, too infrequent. Saying I’ll accomplish something in the next twelve months is like setting New Years’ Resolutions — the pressure for accountability is too little at the beginning of the year, and too intense at the end. Examining whether I did what I promised only after 12 months of effort is unlikely to ensure that I stay on the diligent execution path.

On the other hand, meeting with me and reviewing plans and activities once every month is micromanaging and doesn’t allow for unforeseen circumstances. I can’t ABSOLUTELY promise I’ll get something done in the next 30 days. Who knows what existing client demands will change, what new client opportunities will arise, what staff emergencies and ill-health will affect output? Or (to be honest) how the ups and downs of personal intensity will flow — as my clients keep telling me, you can’t be a dynamo, learning new skills, every month.

But three months is ideal. It’s long enough to work around the world’s unpredictabilities both at work and in people’s personal lives. It’s a long enough leash to make me feel that I have a lot of autonomy in allocating my time, while still keeping me accountable in a period of time that won’t let me go off the rails.

On the other hand, to make it work, the three month-review system mustn’t slip. It must be scheduled, planned for, actionable commitments made and the review actually held. If you want to treat me like a true professional, hold really thorough reviews with strict accountability for action promises made every 3 months — and get off my back in the intervening time period.

Ban monthly budgets!

Abolish annual performance appraisals.

Manage to a 3-month cycle!

(By the way, this rule works on client relationships , too.)


Agree, disagree?


Irene said:

I agree. Nobody has to wait a whole year just to start a new plan in case the old one fails. And pressure is indeed necessary to hasten accomplishment.

posted on March 8, 2007

Tim Khaner said:

I absolutely agree too, David. But I have to say that’s hypothetical – I’ve never worked in an organization where managers placed enough priority on making time to do this.

posted on March 8, 2007

Shawn Callahan said:

Hi David, I not too sure what you meant when you said “the rule works on client relationships too.” Do you mean planning to meet with clients every three months?

posted on March 8, 2007

Barry Wilkinson said:

Ban monthly budgets!

Abolish annual performance appraisals.

Manage to a 3-month cycle!


I have used a 3-month cycle as the basis of my continuing consulting work for some time so I have to partly agree BUT

Not all professional service firms are large and well-funded – certainly in the UK many small and medium sized firms are under-capitalised, and without the discipline of a monthly budget the cash flow would leave the firm’s bankers decidely unhappy. So sadly a monthly budget is important, certainly at a firm level, and probably for departments / practice groups.

With better funded firms, and a spread of different work types, a quarterly management cycle is almost certainly better than a disruptive month-end rush – though I would need some convincing that a 3 month cycle would not in some cases lead to 2 months cruising followed by a 1 month catch up.

As for performance appraisals I disagree profoundly – 3 months is fine for a progress report but not a full-blown review. It is hard enough to get professionals to take genuine appraisal seriously once a year – never mind 4 times.

posted on March 8, 2007

Stuart Cross said:

David – Over the past 12 months I have been getting my own new business off the ground. To create focus and action I have developed a 5 year business plan (now hopelessly out of date!) and have set weekly priorities. But the thing that has most helped establish focus and action for me has been a series of 90 day plans. I review progress weekly, but do not feel falsely constrained to follow tasks. Instead I can focus on the results. As you can imagine, therefore, I am fully supportive of your three-month rule!

posted on March 8, 2007

Rebecca Ryan said:

David – Perfect timing! I’ve been thinking about how we can best check-in with our clients on projects we’re working with them on. Monthly feels like just another of those darned ‘standing meetings’ where nothing gets done. (I deplore standing meetings and strongly recommend Chapter 4 in the Project Driven Enterprise to learn how to run lean meetings, and an organization that sparingly uses meetings.) Quarterly feels just right; it gives the client and us enough air in our schedules to balance all the work we’re trying to accomplish. Thanks for the insight!

posted on March 8, 2007

Toby Lucich said:

The 3-month rule has merit when you are the person monitoring (i.e. manager), but not when you are the person doing the work (performer). The heart of the question is “Who’s cycle time?” – how frequently does one need to gather data points for evaluation and monitoring? It looks different from a manager’s perspective than it does from the performer’s perspective, and the review process should be performer-oriented.

As the producer of results, we want feedback on completion. I perform. I get rated. I see the results.

I want to know if my performance has been on task, above or below the bar, and how to refine my execution before I get too far down the path.

A professional that is delivering shouldn’t be waiting on an arbitrary corporate calendar to get feedback on their performance. Getting data points between quarterly meetings with corporate managers is the most powerful way to mark development and progress.

posted on March 8, 2007

Phil Gott said:


I think there is a lot of sense in the 3 month cycle for fairly senior people (certainly for partners) but a more frequent review is likely to be appropriate for junior people who are still on a steep learning curve and need frequent feedback.

As a trainee chartered accountant at Andersens many years ago I remember receiving quite an in-depth progress review every 2 or 3 weeks. Some of that feedback was, frankly, pretty uncomforatable at the time but as a learning aid it was absolutely invaluable.

posted on March 9, 2007

Frank Kanu said:


basically I agree with you.

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Some projects and some employees need more or less control to have them function in the best way possible. What’s missing are managers that understand this and will step in when there is too much or too little control.

posted on March 9, 2007

Liz Zitzow said:

I agree with the principle, but it won’t work for my business – a seasonal business.

For my business, I break up the review/planning’management cycle to match the various project timelines within our seasonal business. Broadly speaking, it starts with 16 Dec – 28 Feb, which are devoted to “get ready for the big rush”; 1 Mar – 15 Apr are devoted to time sensative client reviews; 16 Apr – 30 Jun are devoted to time-sensative client maintenance; 15 Jun – 15 Oct further client maintenence; closing with 16 Oct – 15 Dec focusing on delinquent clients. This gives us five crucial time periods that affect our business and allow us to reflect and review at times that are relevent to our business.

posted on March 10, 2007

peter vajda said:

“Agree, disagree?” hmmm.

…maybe just another perspective.

When I managed/coached a group of 14 folks, we discussed what each felt would be a fair check-in format…the outside being three months. Folks have different preferences. Some preferred the three-month timeline, others preferred a shorter and more consistent check-in, e.g., once a month, every three weeks. What they knew I/we were focusing on was commitment and progress. When folks demonstrated commitment and progress, we stayed with the agreed-upon check-in time frame; however, when a check-in revealed procrastination, or a last-minute, catch-up and “get it done by tomorrow” approach, (with built-in errors, mistakes, etc.), etc. we changed the time format. Over and above unforseen circumstances, such as illness, etc., that might interfere with the process, what we were consciously aware of was how one’s ability to self-mamange supported or limited commitment and progress. Worked well for us.

posted on March 10, 2007

Ed Kless said:

I agree that once or twice a year is not enough. I have successfully used a trimester system. I found that while it reduces administration by 25% from a quartly system it does not diminish the effectiveness in my view.

Also, while my practice was not an accounting firm, I think it works nicely into the present system in the US where January through April are considered busy season. Getting most accountants to do anything in the time other than client work is difficult.

posted on March 11, 2007

Pawel Brodzinski said:

Generally agree. Of course business goals can have different granulation – I can’t imagine working on my side pet-project in 3-month cycle. We try to do it in 3-4 weeks cycle, and the period is usually too long anyway. However it’s rather small app, the team is self-managing and all of us have everyday work so we have to look in closer perspective.

On the other hand from my experience in most cases quarterly management cycle is very good, because of reasones you’ve mentioned. Not too short, not too long. It works well especially in environments where you have projects lasting at last a couple of months. Long enough to rememeber well what people were doing on the beggining of the cycle.

posted on March 12, 2007

Nagesh Belludi said:

I echo your thoughts on monitoring goals and directions frequently and setting corrective actions as necessary.

Three-month reviews, however, may be infrequent in certain situations. There is a fine balance between empowerment (autonomy) and micromanagement. This balance hinges on two key attributes: (1) sufficiency—-the ability of an individual/organization to execute and get things done without prompts or reminders, and, (2) criticality—-the significance of the project or initiative to the organization. Obviously, personal styles, mutual expectations and interpersonal comfort levels influence the frequency of managerial interaction.

With respect to performance reviews, quarterly reviews can supplement more formal and exhaustive annual reviews. Large organizations cannot easily manage detailed quarterly review processes across the organizations.

posted on March 12, 2007