Five Key Steps for Planning Anything, Step 4: Putting Together an Action Plan by: Phil Alsup

Five Key Steps for Planning Anything, Step 4: Putting Together an Action Plan

If you have been following prior posts we have worked through putting together a basic planning model that can work either toward your personal productivity or be applied to teams and projects in the workplace. We’ve had the chance to examine: the importance of a clear definition of the goal, understanding the current state, and being able to clearly articulate a future state. Now that those pieces are in place one has a clear understanding of the goal and the ultimate destination of the work put toward it. Now it’s time to build the steps that will get you there. These steps, when clearly articulated and captured, become your blueprint, or action plan, for success.

When one thinks of examples of a good plan it is easy to point to the Allies Invasion of Normandy, or more particularly D-Day, as the iconic example of planning. To this day D-Day is still believed to be the largest logistical operation ever carried out, and it had to be done in secret as well! You can read more details here but the support numbers are almost mind-boggling (around 300,000 tons of supplies) and the time and thought that went to assembling and transporting that is truly a marvel of human engineering. Thankfully, our action plans don’t have to be nearly as complicated.

A common question on developing actions plans revolves around how detailed an action plan needs to be. The answer revolves around these three criteria:

  1. How complicated is the goal?
  2. How many people are involved?
  3. How often in the journey to the goal do you (or your team) need to feel success?

Let’s take a look at these three areas and how they apply to building a good action plan.

For goals to be achieved they have to stay urgent and important.

Is Your Goal Too Complicated?

The journey begins with an honest assessment of how complicated the goal is. Note the question is not about the worth of the goal or if it can be achieved, the question is what is involved in getting there. The best action plans tend to have a limited number of actions steps demonstrating clear and direct progression. I would caution if an action plan has more than a dozen steps involved one might want to examine if the goal needs to be broken down into a series of smaller projects. For goals to be achieved they have to stay urgent and important. Very few people can sustain urgency and priority on a plan that has thirty steps to success. Over the course of the time it takes to complete all those steps other priorities come along and enthusiasm for the goal will lose steam. A series of simpler goals, or projects, made up of fewer actions steps makes much more sense toward ensuring success that just having one large, overly bloated and complicated goal.

A great action plan can die because of poor communication.

How many people are involved?

This question becomes important for several reasons. A great action plan can die because of poor communication. If the project relies on a number of people for success then your communication strategy needs to be sound and accounted for in the actions steps. Equally important is the fact you will want input on how the action plan should work. If your goal is purely a personal one (a certain grade point average, a health-related one) then you can set up your own action plans with all of the accountability placed upon you. Once that action plan begins to involve other people the percentages of reaching success moves from just you to others. That raises a risk that you have to manage. If an action plan has eight key steps and one person doesn’t do two of them then the goal is in trouble. The way to mitigate this is by soliciting input from key members. If you are leading a team project one of the sure-fire ways to sabotage it is to hand your team member a list of assignments and when they are due. There’s no harm, in fact in most cases it’s beneficial, as the leader to have a suggested draft of possible action steps and a timeline. If the work, however, involves others’ input is critical to ensure everyone is clear on the vision and that they can deliver what is needed by the required dates. Specific points of communication must also be considered as a part of any set of action plans that involves a number of people so that frequent discussion may be had regarding progress, potential barriers that may have arisen, and a continued sharing of the vision.

There are two kinds of project people: short-termers and long-termers.

How often in the journey to the goal do you (or your team) need to feel success?

The third question to answer either for yourself or the team you are leading is a good understanding on how often in the journey do you (or your team) need to feel success? One of the first pieces of advice I received from my supervisor was in regard to his observation that there were two kinds of project people: short-termers and long-termers. Over the course of my professional and personal life I’ve seen this to bear out time and again. There is a set of people who like to move from project to project quickly. There are others that can work on the same project for years and be satisfied with it. Let’s be clear, one is not better than the other. In fact, you want to have people of both sets around you. One group, however, can be more preferable for certain projects than the other. If you put a short-termer on a project that takes months or years to bear fruit they will become disenchanted. If you put a long-termer on a series of unrelated, short projects they will feel unfulfilled. The first key is knowing which one you are and then the second is knowing which one those on your team are. Short-termers need projects where they can see and feel quick results, that’s what brings them satisfaction and energy. Long-termers want to understand a problem and the entire context around it, that’s what brings them satisfaction and energy. A good understanding of who you are and who your team members are in this regard will help you create a set of action plans that will allow them to find satisfactory results and keep their energy on it. A bad pairing will inhibit progress.

So, what do you do when you have a team of short-termers but the goal is a long term one? That’s where you go back to breaking down the goal into smaller projects. You want it to be structured where they can move through items, check them off their lists, and be ready for the next series of assignments. For the long-termer who may be connected to a series of short-term goals you will want to keep them connected to the long game. Being open with them about the long-term outcomes and what it can mean by having them involved can help. These people are also great ones to put onto research as issues and challenges come up in the process as they will find satisfaction in digging deeply into one aspect and coming back with several well-researched potential solutions. Understanding short-termers and long-termers is a key skill to develop among your professional skill set.

Once you have examined these three key areas you will then want to use your team to create a timeline that includes deadlines and personal assignments for each action step. These action steps will also want to take into consideration available resources and costs if there are any associated with it. In the end you want to make sure your action plan clearly articulates what needs to happen, when it needs to happen, and who needs to make it happen. Clear communication and a solid process in your action plan will encourage your team and help them see that the goal is indeed achievable if all do their part.

Next up: Step 5: Knowing the Benefits