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How to create an action plan

By the time we entrepreneurs have tamed our squirrels and decided which shiny object to attack, we’re usually pretty exhausted from all the thinking and deciding, and as a result we just want to get to doing. The idea of more planning feels both overwhelming and frustrating to a visionary, but it is vital for several reasons:

  • Time and money – The easiest way to waste time and money in business is to throw multiple ideas at the wall and see if anything sticks. A plan allows you to not only hit your most important deliverables, but it gives you valuable data about the time and money that goes into every effort.
  • Squirrels – The plan allows for follow-through when the next big idea tries to distract you from your objectives.
  • Decision fatigue – Deciding day after day what to work on is exhausting and often stops us from even getting started. With an action plan, you know exactly what to work on first.
  • Fire drills – We need to stop running our business like we’re trying to cram last minute for an exam. We need to become the nerd with the color-coded work plan so that we are not in a constant state of reaction.
  • Teamwork – Imagine for a minute how it feels to be on a team where the leader changes his or her mind every couple of days about what is important. Imagine putting in tons of effort on a task, only to have it deemed irrelevant the next week. Having a plan that everyone can follow helps build morale and minimizes frustration.

Chunk it down

The first step in building your action plan is to figure out the sub projects. Each of these is part one of the objective, set in the operation, but still consists of many tasks. A common mistake is to consider an sub project or deliverable a task, and thus not plan for it accordingly. 

For example, you may have :

Objective : Launch service X

Deliverable : Update website

Task 1 : Create a sales page

But “Create a sales page” is actually a series of tasks:

  • Write the content
  • Choose images
  • Upload to website.

So the deliverable is “Create a sales page.” And other deliverables may be “Create a TY page,” “Create a checkout page,” etc.

Team and Time

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” 

Bill Gates

And the same can be said of a day, or even an hour, in a project setting. In overcoming our built-in urge to think you can do it all,  the first step is to determine the resources you'll need for the deliverable, and explode it into its underlying tasks. The more detailed you get here the better, as it gives a real sense of what needs doing.

The next step is to assign a time (not a deadline, but a resource utilization) and a team member to each task. Note that if a task needs two people (e.g. copy requires a writer and a reviewer), then it is not a task. Break it down further into each piece so that each task has one owner. This will help you to measure progress and allow the team member to take responsibility for that task.

Knowing the team member and the estimated time for each task should allow you to do a simple cost calculation. 

Prioritize

Looking at your large list of complicated sub projects and knowing that you have limited time and resources is enough to send anyone running for the next shiny idea, but by finding the needle movers, you can focus on the items that create momentum, keeping you and the team motivated.

What is a needle mover?

A needle mover is an activity that either helps you get to completion faster (think of the needle on a speedometer), or that helps you get significantly closer to the end goal (think of the needle on a scale, moving as you add weight to it).

Once you’ve broken down your objective into deliverables, refine the needle movers by:

Applying the 80/20 rule, or Pareto principle


The 80/20 rule suggests that 80% of results come from 20% of your efforts. Examine your list of projects and rank them in order of impact on the overall goal.

Putting them in order

For the 20% from the step above, are there any steps that need to come first? Put the deliverables in order of reliance on each other. You may also find one of the dependencies is outside of the top 20%, i.e. an activity that might not seem to yield much impact now, but will become much more important because it holds up a top 20% activity.

This distinction is very important, because it allows you to see the breadth of the work that is required to reach the goal when you begin to assess timelines.

The top three cubed approach

Your needle movers should now be ranked by impact and in sequential order. For your three top objectives from your operational plan, select the top three needle movers and run the needle mover approach on the tasks beneath it, i.e. rank by impact and sequence. And choose the top three to focus on.  You have three objectives with three needle-moving deliverables, each with three needle moving tasks, hence the three cubed approach.

While you are focused on hitting the top task under each deliverable, having a top three allows you to see opportunities for parallel work by the team, or what to work on next if you or they are waiting on something.

As you complete a top three task on any deliverable, you simply promote the next in line until you have finished it. When the deliverable is finished, promote the next up to the focus sheet from the needle movers analysis.

Prioritize

As you now have everything ranked, you can plan out the time for each team member, remembering to allow for sequencing. This will allow you to see the earliest possible finish date based on your plan. We’ll talk about how to add some buffer to this below, to be cautious. 

This exercise is vital in the quick start visionary CEO world. Often, we have an idea we’re excited about and want it to go live yesterday, without considering the reality of limited resources or the toll it will take on the team.

Success milestones

Getting caught up in the “It’s not happening fast enough and I have a million new ideas” mental stream can make a project feel long and constricting. Deciding upfront what a project's milestones are and how you will celebrate them (personally or as a team) helps you stay on track and motivated.

Maybe your success milestone is each deliverable, or maybe there is one mammoth task that needs its own reward.

KPIs

Key performance indicators are how you track your progress toward your success milestones and with the project overall. Often, these are quantitative measures, such as time spent versus estimate, progress versus timeline, or cost versus plan. But you could add in qualitative measures, such as team motivation, that you gauge at update meetings. Noticing which tasks drive morale versus which ones are draining allows you to plan the milestones that need celebrating in the future, or to look for outsourcing options on the next project.

The “What If” exercise

Consider all the elements of the plan, from software to team members, and ask yourself, “What if they were unavailable for a day, a week, a month? What would the impact be?” If it is material, consider having a Plan B in place. If it is not material, you may want to adjust your timeline to allow some buffer at the top line, 10% for example . Do not assign this to each task, or Parkinson’s Law (work expands to fill the time available for its completion) will kick in, guaranteeing you’re over. 

Becoming agile

Like any plan, the action plan needs monitoring and changing. The monitoring of KPIs will show you where something is off track. If it is behind, following up on the cause, adding support where needed, or giving a gentle nudge might be required. If it is ahead of schedule, you may need to adjust the upcoming tasks so that they are ready to start earlier and you don’t have dead time.

Also, as you work through the tasks, you may need to make wider adjustments. If the first tasks take on average 50% longer than you expected, adjust the rest of the timeline accordingly and make changes to the plan as needed, e.g. bring on extra team members to help stay on track toward the deadline.

Note: I always recommend keeping a copy of the first plan for review purposes. 

Execute! 

While for some of us the idea is the reward, for others the planning is the happy place. I’ll let you in on a secret: Very few plans ever go according to…well…plan! Focus on the data being fed back to you as execution starts, not on success/failure type of thinking.

Review

At a minimum, there should be a review of the plan at the end of the 90 days. Look back at the original plan and ask yourself:

  • Were my time estimates over or under, and by how much?
  • Were the right team members on the right tasks?
  • What worked well for the team and what did not?
  • What could I change to make the process 10% better next time?

This process allows you to make high level notes to refer to for the next action plan, when all you remember is how cool it was to see the idea come to fruition. 

But I have this other idea…

The great thing about executing a plan is that it frees up so much mental capacity that decision-making takes up. The bad thing about executing a plan is that the freed up mental capacity usually means more exciting ideas.  

Meet the parking lot. I want you to picture the line of taxis waiting at the curb in an airport. Now think about what holy heck breaks out if you try to go to the tenth taxi in line. These are your tasks, lined up and waiting for you: As they move off, the next moves up. 

But there are always a few sitting in reserve in a parking lot around the back. They’ll get their turn eventually, but for now their drivers are waiting, taking naps or playing on their phones, quite content. This is where your other ideas go to wait. 

You can be confident that they won’t be forgotten, but they are also not in your line of sight the whole time, distracting you and causing chaos when you head for them.

“I love it when a plan comes together!” 

Hannibal (the A-Team leader, not the serial killer)

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