A simple truth in business is this: It’s easy to set a goal. It’s hard to then break it down into specific action steps, and even harder to execute it to a successful conclusion.
In thinking about the process of planning, what came to my mind was a mountain climbing trip I took on Mt. Hood, an 11,000 foot mountain in the Oregon cascades, with three of my buddies in the summer of 1981.
Mt. Hood is the trademark peak of Portland, OR and a decent challenge in terms of climbing difficulty. I’d done a fair amount of hiking and some climbing as a young man, but ice climbing and summitting was new, and precisely up my alley as someone a bit obsessed with adventuring.
Two guys handled most of the preparation for the trip – our gear, our route, who would lead, what to do in case of emergency, and the meticulous timing of our summit. We began hiking in the middle of the night so we could be on the top of the mountain by sunrise. We reached the summit around 7am, enjoyed the view for about 30 minutes, and were climbing back down before the sun rose high enough to begin hitting the ice (melting ice and rock fall make for a dangerous trip).
It’s funny to retell this story in such few words, since I actually remember more details about this trip than I do many other things in my life – things like the smell of the sulfur fields as we walked in the moonlight night up the mountain, the four of us being roped together as we methodically took the most dangerous and technical steps over the ice, that buzz of adrenaline when we reached the top, and then the utter exhaustion of the last few miles returning to our starting spot. I’ve never been so tired in all my life. It was awesome.
This is such a happy memory for me, a great goal accomplished, quite simply because of good planning. I just told the story of the adventure itself, but behind every great accomplished goal is a myriad of steps, details, and plans that are the building blocks to the destination. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of planning because it isn’t nearly as sexy as the goal itself, but it’s one of the things I help companies with most frequently, because it’s hard to do well.
You’ve got a goal, you’ve got a mission statement – great. Now what? This month, I thought I’d share some of the questions that I ask executives when I’m supporting them in creating a plan. This isn’t rocket science; it’s simply an intentional process that will get you off the ground with your planning. Here we go:
What is my desired outcome? This is absolutely, hands-down, the most critical piece of planning — identifying your endpoint, or your “summit”. The desired outcome becomes the filter by which you map your route and evaluate alternatives. If you are not clear on your endpoint, you’re guaranteed not to accomplish your goal.
Where am I now? What is your starting point? What are your current surroundings and what needs to happen for you to be prepared to hit the trail? Who is with you? What are your resources? What are your limitations? This is where things like assessments are incredibly important. You have to know where you are now in order to figure out how best to get where you want to be — the summit.
What will get in the way of my success? This one takes a fair amount of self-awareness. Identifying potential challenges early in the process is key to effectively executing a plan. There are several common obstacles I see as I work with organizations and leaders:
Plans are too myopic — It’s common for people to aim for the hill instead of the mountaintop because it seems easier to get there, when the goal should be bigger.
Plans are too big — It’s also very common for leaders set goals that are completely unrealistic for their people, their resources, and their timelines.
Plans keep changing — I call this “Shiny object syndrome”. People see what the desired objective is, but change their goal every couple of steps and can’t make up their mind about what they’re aiming for.
Plans become all-encompassing — There is absolutely such a thing as over-planning. We call this “paralysis by analysis”, and I see it in leaders who would rather spend all their time gathering the gear than actually starting the climb.
What are my options/alternative routes? They say there are several ways to “skin a cat”. Leaders should always carefully consider the different routes they can take to accomplish their goal. Various options have different costs, availability of resources, timeframes, obstacles and probabilities of success. All of those play into what the best solution is. The best plan is the one that can be executed the most efficiently and effectively.
A note on this one: When I go through this process with leaders, we use a decision matrix with weighted criteria based on the priorities of their organization.
What’s the action plan? Once the best route has been selected, the final phase before execution is mapping the details of the plan. Who is responsible and for what? What are the timelines and systems of accountability? When will execution begin? How much will it cost? How do you know when the goal has been accomplished? Creating these detailed action steps are frequently where you find the ‘real’ issues you will face.
Execution: Once the plan is developed, it goes into motion. Execution is simply follow-through. This is the most difficult part of the planning process. Things change, nerves get weak and other routes begin to look more enticing. Sticking to a well thought out plan is difficult, but it will produce the highest probability of success.
What is your summit? Have you planned your journey? Are you ready for the journey? Good planning will give you the best chance to successfully achieve your goal. Happy climbing!