Practical Leaders Organize Assumptions into Plans

By Gary Clayton

How do you plan to reach your important goals? What do you do to create a path from where you are to where you want to be? As a leader, how do you organize that path in such a way that your followers can believe in you and stay interested in taking that journey with you? Creating a path to the future state you desire is a key leadership skill. It requires setting a course to get from one intermediate point to another.

Essentially, you create a set of directions similar to what you get from Mapquest, Google maps or your GPS system. Each segment is based upon a set of assumptions. Most importantly, the assumptions include that the road is safe and open and that it will a fairly predictable length of time to travel. Your leadership plans should be based on similar assumptions about safety, accessibility, time to complete and a measure of how the segments move you closer to your goals.

As leader, use time to your advantage

Your goals are in the future, therefore you have no choice but to adopt assumptions that are time-dependent. By organizing a time-phased path to your goals and monitoring both your progress and your environment continuously, you can make nearly all your risks small and manageable. That is the lesson of the great successes and failures of history: all but the very worst cataclysms can be managed through planning progress, time slicing and monitoring. Earthquakes, fires, car wrecks and a few abrupt market calamities aside, nearly everything else can be identified early enough for corrective actions to be taken.

Wise leaders plan small steps to accomplish great goals

Putting a man on the moon required breaking the grand goal into small tasks where risk could be managed.

Breaking a grand goal into small tasks makes the impossible possible

Planning is your opportunity to create a path that allows you to learn and correct errors before they become so large that they destroy your chance of reaching your goal. There is no better example than the US space program that put Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969.

In 1957, when the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, the US had no capability in space. President Eisenhower resisted congressional pressures to throw a panic-driven space program together. Instead, he launched a deliberate program of planning that would build a space agency, NASA, that could accomplish great goals. This deliberate program of incremental steps allowed his successor, President Kennedy to announce the radical goal of placing a man on the moon before 1970.

Following how NASA built upon many incremental successes is crucial in planning how you can accomplish your own great goals. In its first few years, NASA had to determine whether mankind was capable of surviving the launch from the ground, living for days in space and the uncertainties of the return to earth. It did this through incremental ground-based experiments and satellite launches, followed by the Mercury space program. The Mercury program itself consisted of over twenty unmanned missions and six manned flights.

Mercury was followed by the Gemini program of two unmanned and ten manned fights. By the time Apollo XI landed on the moon, the US manned space program had a history of 48 missions (manned and unmanned) over a period of ten years. In other words, there was a mission accomplished about every ten weeks on average. This was in spite of the initial startup activities and numerous problems. And each mission preparation plan was split into much smaller tasks, typically smaller than two weeks in duration. This allowed quick recognition of problems and quick launching of remedial efforts.

Many launches were delayed by minor glitches and there was one a horrible disaster: the Apollo I spacecraft burned at the pad with three Astronauts inside it. That caused a 20 month delay in parts of the Apollo space program, but the program as a whole continued to march on. The US space program was able to continue progressing toward its grand goal, precisely because the path to putting a man on the moon was split into many incremental goals. Many of these incremental goals could be accomplished even if other goal completions were delayed, as the plan allowed for parallel and independent development paths.

If the US manned space program could organize its ambitious goal into small time-phased steps, then you can do the same with your grand goal

Many of the technologies necessary for the US space program did not even exist in 1958, when Eisenhower established NASA. Yet a mere eleven years later, the technologies were in use as Apollo XI landed on the moon.

When you plan your path to reaching your grand goals, how carefully do you plan your path - and make changes as reality unfolds around you?

  • What do you do to split your efforts into smaller, more achievable and measurable objectives that can be used to create a platform for your next activities?
  • What have you done to split your path into major segments that are less than ten weeks on average between major accomplishments?
  • How have you split the work toward each major accomplishment so you have meaningful feedback on progress at least every two weeks?
  • What does your progress monitoring plan look like?
  • How have you organized so that you get the best information and suggestions from each member of your team?
  • What have you done to be organized to analyze their suggestions and act upon the best ideas promptly to keep moving toward your goals?

Most of us become very impatient when we become stuck in traffic, so impatient that you will start thinking about alternative routes. Doesn’t your path to your grand goal deserve the same amount of monitoring and reassessment you apply to driving to new destinations?

Gary Clayton has over 20 years experience organizing and leading projects for some of the world’s largest companies. Gary provides leadership coaching and consulting services to leaders and those who wish to become leaders in business and life.

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