For the average person, the act of planning involves creating a list of action items. If you’ve been around the block a few times, you are wise enough to want names and dates connected to each of those action items. With a good solid list in hand, you probably feel ready to plunge ahead.
What if I told you that creating that list of action items isn’t the first step of planning, but the third? If you started that way, you skipped two important steps.
And what if I told you that plunging ahead once you’ve completed that plan means you’ve skipped the fourth step as well?
Skipping three of the four steps of planning is not only super common, it is a really bad habit. DRAW your Plans™ for greater success:
1. D Is For Destination
What are we trying to accomplish?
When planning, don’t fall prey to the tendency to begin discussing actions, or actually performing actions, before you are clear about what needs to be accomplished.
- What will success look like?
- What problem are we trying to solve?
- What will be different when we are done?
Create a clear objective, destination, outcome – whatever you want to call it – before you try to pave the shortest path to that destination.
Before you can make reservations and pack your bag for a vacation, you must choose a destination. The alternative would be a mess. You could end up at the beach with skis and boots.
The same is true for all planning. Suppose you are launching a new product. Is the goal to reach new markets, to provide a new price point for existing markets, or to augment the functionality of existing products so you can increase the revenue per existing customer? These are significantly different destinations and your choice will affect everything from product functionality to price to marketing to how you measure success and more. Before you do any more detailed planning, determine what success would look like.
2. R Is For Roadmap
Once you have a Destination, you need to scope out the various dimensions of the project. These are all the different components you need to think about. You can think of these as sub-projects or intermediate destinations. The point is to nail down the big picture Roadmap so important components aren’t forgotten.
For example, when developing that new product, your Roadmap might include testing the market, developing a prototype, identifying new sales channels, recruiting celebrity champions, and increasing capacity. If you were installing a new ERP system (Enterprise Resource Planning software), you wouldn’t want to omit dimensions such as writing manuals, training users, transferring legacy data, or ensuring buy-in.
I remember the first time I developed custom software at a new company for a personal computer. I missed two whole dimensions. I thought I was done, but then my boss asked me for the installation script and training manuals. I’d written a lot of software, but had never had to worry about either of these before. The point of the Roadmap is to identify all these different dimensions or sub-projects so nothing of consequence is inadvertently omitted.
While developing a good Roadmap, you will be able to work backward from the destination, review your objectives, and debate various approaches before getting bogged down in the detailed steps. This allows you to eliminate unnecessary steps and ensure nothing significant is missed.
3. A Is For Action
The third step is to identify the tasks that must be accomplished. This is the step everyone understands so I won’t spend much time here. Suffice it to say, you need to know:
- How well
The most common mistake here is stopping with the What and Who. Discuss When as much to surface priority, resource, sequence, and dependency issues as to put a stake in the ground. Give some attention to the How and How Well too, unless you simply don’t care what method is used or whether your widgets are gold-plated or filled with expensive or unnecessary bells and whistles.
4. W Is For Warnings
Once you’ve got a plan that seems ready for implementation, don’t skip this last step that involves looking for Warning signs. Ask the important question: What might go wrong?
Most plans fail and the reasons for those failures are not usually all that surprising. The problem is that few people stop to ask what could go wrong. Just as you would give an erratic driver wide berth, you must also be a bit wary of plans. You need to minimize the likelihood of encountering problems (preventative action) and prepare yourself for that eventuality should they occur despite your best efforts to avoid them (contingent action).
First, identify the potential problems. Get a little creative here and really brainstorm what might go wrong. Once you have a list, rate each according to likelihood and seriousness.
Dismiss out of hand any potential problems that are neither likely nor serious. You may also want to dismiss problems that aren’t serious, even if quite likely. Serious problems, however, deserve more consideration. Serious and likely problems deserve the most consideration. Here are the questions to ask:
- Can we eliminate, minimize, or live with this risk? If so, what must we do?
- Should this problem occur despite our efforts to eliminate it or reduce the seriousness or likelihood, how do we want to be prepared? What might we do to minimize potential damage?
#1 will reveal preventive actions and #2 will reveal contingent actions.
Problems happen. Those who are on top of the game anticipate and prevent problems. Those who skip this step are blind-sided again and again.
Oh, of course, there are also those people who make a great list of potential problems, develop excellent preventive and contingent actions, and then implement neither. At least one Fortune 100 company has admitted this to me, albeit sheepishly. I’m sure they aren’t the only ones! DRAW your Plans™ with discipline from start to finish and you are far more likely to see them succeed.
This article first appeared on Forbes, November 26th, 2017.