Friday, April 15, 2016

Don't Confuse Goals with Having a Plan

The biggest problem with planning is lack of execution. And many plans are doomed to failure because they define goals without describing the actions needed to achieve them. I see this in plans of all types: Strategic plans, business plans, marketing plans, project plans, capture plans—to name a few.

Why do we divorce goals from actions? Because goals are relatively easy to define, whereas the associated actions are often elusive. For example, if you have an underperforming office, you can easily determine how much its financial contribution needs to improve. That's the goal.

But what specifically should be done to accomplish that? Chances are if you knew, the office wouldn't be in trouble. It's simpler to put in your plan: "Increase 2016 revenue in the Atlanta office to at least $1.2 million, with a minimum profit of 7.0%." A statement like that alone constitutes an office or business line "strategy" in many of the plans I've seen.

We can do better. Let me offer a few suggestions for making your plans actionable, thus enabling your firm to achieve more of its goals:

Determine what steps are needed to reach your goals; better still, define the process. Meaningful business goals require sustained, disciplined effort. Yet many plans only define the initial steps. That may be necessary because subsequent steps cannot be determined until the first steps are taken (to gather more information, for example).

The problem is that without a long-term process spelled out, efforts often stall after the initial actions. This is one factor that argues for doing planning in stages rather than in a single annual event, as is most common. Plans often lack enough information to be trustworthy or devolve into speculation about future events or circumstances. Without the structure of an ongoing process—which hopefully further enlightens and validates the plan—the effort can stumble to a halt after a few months.

Do your best to outline a process that extends over time until the accomplishment of your goal. You may not be able to define longer-range actions, but you can at least plan how you will determine them and when.

Identify obstacles and how you will overcome them. I've coined the terms "elevators" and "gravitators" to point out the importance of realizing both (1) what you need to do and (2) why you might not do it. The concept comes from the Apollo spaceship that consumed 99% of its fuel escaping the earth's gravity and only 1% to complete the remaining 4.5-million-mile journey. Similarly, in reaching business goals, we usually expend most of our energy just trying to overcome the inertia of the status quo.

Yet plans often ignore the gravitators—factors that work against goal achievement—and focus on elevators, those positive steps that move you in the desired direction. You should avoid defining actions without the context of those inevitable obstacles that will need to be overcome, an all-too-common occurrence in planning. Instead, choose actions that both elevate your progress toward goals and mitigate the pull of "gravity" (the appeal of old, familiar ways of doing things).

Define intermediate milestones on the way to your targeted goals. Momentum is a powerful motivational force that catapults sports teams to victories and businesses to successful accomplishment. Intermediate milestones enable you to build momentum over time by celebrating small wins on the path to bigger ones. Indeed, John Kotter's seminal research into successful organizational change strategies found that generating opportunities for such short-term wins is critical.

These milestones should be specific and measurable, so that reaching them is unambiguous and progress toward them can readily be monitored. They should be timed such that they demand significant effort, yet are not so far apart that people lose focus and commitment—three to six months seems appropriate. But progress should be measured every month when possible, with a more in-depth reassessment and readjustment perhaps every quarter.

Remember that you must actively lead the change process. This is probably the most common oversight in plan implementation. If your goals are substantial, people will need to change what they're doing. And such change does not come naturally or easily. In fact, resistance to change is almost always your biggest challenge in executing your plan.

Don't confuse material changes (in strategy, systems, policies, practices, etc.) with the human transition that is always the hardest part of organizational change. Your plan should define the actions you will take to facilitate behavior change. Training alone will rarely get the job done. Nor will a management dictate. Define your change process as part of the implementation process—not just what people need to do, but how you're going to get them to do it. (For more on this, see my series on change, starting with this post.)

Carefully allocate the necessary time and resources. Plan implementation usually requires a significant investment of time and money. Yet plans rarely explain where this is coming from—especially with regards to time. In all likelihood, the people assigned responsibility for executing the plan don't have spare time waiting to be committed to this. One big reason why plans fail is the failure to budget time to work on them.

This involves not only defining actions, but estimating how much time those actions will require. Then you should allocate time specifically for the assigned individuals to complete their actions. To do this, you're probably going to need to readjust time commitments to other activities. I typically press my clients to answer these questions: "If the assignment will require x hours for this person, where do those hours come from? What is the individual going to give up or delay to create that capacity?

Would you manage a client project without budgeting time? Of course not. Then why would you approach working on crucial corporate goals and initiatives without the same discipline?

Goal setting is a vital part of any planning, but the effort shouldn't stop there. You need to define specifically how you will achieve your goals. Consider the above steps to ensure your future plans describe the necessary actions in appropriate detail. For the plans you already have in place, let me encourage you to revisit them to review their implementability. Do your goals have a clear plan of action? If not, filling that void should be the next step in your implementation process.