Creating a Plan
I have a confession to make. Planning is not something that comes naturally to me. It takes dedication and a certain amount of will power to do it thoughtfully, carefully and with purpose. Perhaps for some of you this is a surprise, given the nature of my career path. I did not actually plan on writing this blog this week. This blog was simply an article that I felt inspired to write, at the time. All of us have different personalities, tendencies and preferences. For some of you, the act of planning is something that is second nature. I would consider myself to be more of an “in the moment” kind of guy. Regardless, I believe that having a plan and owning it, at least to some degree, are fundamental attributes for one to be successful in their career and life.
Planning Takes Effort
How many times did your mother tell you (for me, it was mostly my Mom, but it was my Dad too), “that’s not my problem, if you had just done it when I asked you to, you wouldn’t be doing (fill in the blank) instead of (something other than what I so desperately did not want to do).” I would storm off, upset that my friends were out in the street playing ball hockey and I was stuck cleaning my room. Sigh. It reminds me that some things tend not to change. My bed is still not made today and there is plenty of laundry to be folded.
Planning can take a lot of effort. I have to be in the right state of mind. Sometimes, I have to know that someone else is depending on me for it. I have to convince myself that if I just follow through on my plan, life will feel so much easier, better, whatever – at least in a positive direction. Some people are experts at it. You know the type. They create their lists. Post-It notes are stuck all over their screens and notebooks, carefully colour coordinated and precisely outline exactly what needs to be done. Others use different pen colours in their notebooks, actually use the little tabs that are at the back of the notebook to keep their sections carefully organized (oh, so that’s what those are for!). Then there’s me – I know I wrote that down somewhere, I’m sure I’ll find it. Minutes go by and no, I still haven’t found it. There are probably three or four different places that I keep notes. Some on my computer, some on paper, some on sticky notes. I KNOW I’ll remember where I put it, it’s so obvious – at the time.
Some of the smartest people I know have a hard time convincing themselves to plan their work. Their minds are racing a million miles an hour and the last thing they want to do is stop and put a plan together. Something about scheduling makes their brains seize up like drinking a cold Slurpee through a giant straw. Do you know somebody like this? Is one method more right than another? Are those that are planful more successful than those that aren’t? How does this translate for those of us that are relied on as project managers, keepers of detailed documents and drawings, or those that budget finances? I may not love it, but that doesn’t mean I should not do it. Back to the old childhood life lessons. At some point you need to decide that it is worth the time and effort to create plans and routines.
Planning is Deliberate
Planning can be painful. For some, it triggers a fight or flight kind of response. It is kind of like jumping on the treadmill on the 1st of January expecting that the joints will miraculously move, and you’ll look like David Hasselhoff running down the beach. Once you do it, and start to make a habit of it, it becomes a lot easier. Translate to work life: you may be frustrated and impatient, wanting to kick your boss in the shin as he asks you to once again go back to the drawing board and spell things out more clearly. It can seem like an endless list of tasks needing to be done, but practice certainly makes it easier. Where the real payoff comes is in the end, when your planning has led to increased communication with your client and you’ve hit the target date set so many months ago. The anxious thoughts related to the planning exercise are still there, but the thoughts of how impressed you were with the project outcome and the memory of the accomplishment will be there too.
Planning takes time, and if you are like me some days, you feel like it can be a waste of time. For those that do plan, they understand that the one hour spent planning could save ten times that amount further down the road. I had a professor in university who taught a small business and entrepreneurship class that I was fortunate enough to be a part of. I’ll never forget his tag line, the 7 P’s – “prior proper planning prevents piss poor performance.” It has stuck with me to this day. This has been so true, particularly in the start-up phases of a company or a next big project. Once the plan is in place, the execution of the project becomes so much easier. It doesn’t mean that everything will go according to plan, but it does mean that your chances of success will be that much greater, because you’ve given yourself time to course correct if needed.
The Positives of Planning
Things generally go better when you’ve got a plan in place. You will find that the utopian world you live in of cramming for the exam, getting everything done at the last minute, will not always work out. This is especially true if you are relying on others to do something with the information you’ve provided them and given them very little if any time to do it. Sound familiar? With a plan, you can give others a heads up on when to expect certain things to happen and in turn, they can also plan their time and activities. I like to think of this as providing no surprises. No surprises that the schedule will or won’t be met, that the costs are going to go over or under budget or that the amount of resources you are going to need won’t be adequate. Having a plan allows you to negotiate expectations. It maximizes your effectiveness and the effectiveness of those around you. It is all about setting expectations. Having a plan and checking against it allows you to notice and make adjustments prior to things really going off the rails and the project being in trouble.
I’d like to summarize by providing some tips:
1. Planning works best when you don’t have to go at it alone. Back to the training analogy. If you’ve planned a workout with others and you know they are waiting on you to show up, you are that much more likely to drag your sorry butt out of bed at 5 a.m. Use others to help you build the skill.
2. Accept that it may be difficult. Simply by accepting your fate, you are acknowledging that it may be useful, and you are that much more likely to follow through.
3. Don’t think that all the planning needs to be done in one go. Spend some time on it every day and build it out.
4. Communicate your plan to others. Those that share what they are planning to do are that much more likely to carry it out. The consequences of not meeting the expectation become that much greater.
5. Find a method that works for you. If using pictures on a whiteboard is a better way to start than listing things in a notebook or on a spreadsheet, go for it. The end result is the same – a well thought out plan that can be marked to and shared.
6. If things don’t go according to plan, be willing to accept that and alter the plan. Don’t beat yourself up or revert back to no planning as the answer. Surround yourself with people that support the process and understand that you are working towards becoming better at the skill.
The habits we build today will help us to succeed when things get really busy. Having a plan, and making adjustments to it, is just as important as delivering a complete project.
And yes, it can be hard, at least for some of us.