You know the feeling. You’ve got a mountain of work in front of you. Projects that are critical are falling by the wayside to make room for the latest dumpster-fire of urgency that landed on your desk. The merely important projects mock you from the depths of notebooks that go back years, reminding you of that optimistic and strangely unpressured afternoon when you once fantasized that doing them might be possible.
No time to deal with those now, though. You’ve got work to do. Deadlines to meet. And a whole lot of apologies to make, to all the people that are going to get deliverables days, weeks and sometimes months after they were originally promised.
If this feels like you, you’re not alone. Trust me. In fact, you’ve got lots of company. Of this you can firmly rest assured.
In point of fact, that used to feel a whole lot like my existence. And that’s not to say that it doesn’t feel like that way sometimes, although fortunately the experiences are fewer, further between and far less intense than they once were.
This is in no way me trying to sound smug. I’m trying to provide a vague level of reassurance that it can, in fact, get better. There are strategies you can employ to get control over the mountainous heap of commitments threatening to overwhelm your sanity.
I will readily acknowledge that I’m someone attracted by new ideas and new opportunities. I see the exciting possibility of a prospective piece of work, and immediately go into overdrive about how interesting, engaging, fun and challenging it would be to work on it. Despite the long list of other commitments already on my plate. It’s difficult to remember that enthusiasm and inspiration, though, when you are slogging through the heavy lifting of analysis, deliverable development, meeting preparation and expectations management.
What’s even harder to do, though, is plan. Which is ironic. Because you would think that we would value some good solid planning right around this point. But no. Our primordial brains don’t do well at logical thinking and reasoning when we’re panicking. And so we scramble further down the rabbit hole, the light diminishing behind us as we dig ourselves ever deeper.
I was reminded of this while working with a client recently. I’m helping them to develop a strategic plan (as I do). A fundamental goal is helping them to prioritize, focus and expend their energies on those initiatives that are most meaningful. Worthy stuff, that. Important. Essential, even.
And yet, making progress is challenging. Strategic planning itself is work. It takes time to do well. There are workshops, discussions, explorations and considerations. Meetings must be held, deliverables developed, discussions had and sessions facilitated. And scheduling that is challenging, particularly given that the client has a massive number of initiatives already on the go, that are consuming significant amounts of time, effort and energy across the organization.
A hefty number of these initiatives are important. They represent meaningful changes the organization needs to make, either to address current risks or to move the organization forward. The organization knows they need to do them. They know the value of delivering them. And they can contemplate significant consequences and impacts if the work remains undone.
At the same time, the sheer number of initiatives is a challenge. As with many organizations, there are a select few who are critical linch-pins to a significant number of projects. Which means—when push comes to shove—that there are a select few bottlenecks that stand to significantly stall progress as time crunches get intense.
The consequence of all of this is that doing the work of today has real impacts, getting in the way of planning the work of tomorrow. The organization is struggling to find time to plan, because it’s already very busy doing. The interesting thing is that if the were to take the time to plan, many of the initiatives that are underway would likely represent important plan content. They would flow through as work that needs to continue to be done.
This begs the question, what’s the point in planning? If we know we need to do all this work, and it’s critical, then why don’t we just get on with it? That’s an awesome question. It’s an essential question, in fact. And it is one that I think many people and organizations struggle with.
If we plan, the reality is that we may wind up having many of the initiatives already underway still showing up in our plan. That’s a choice. But it’s a choice that has to be weighed in terms of priority. Of capacity. Of value and relevance. While many priorities may still show up, would they show up with that urgency? In that sequence? Based on the current timelines?
Part of planning is sorting out what fits, and what we can manage, so that we can successfully deliver results. It’s about establishing clear priorities. That means defining what has to come first, and what next and what—important and relevant though it might be—needs to wait. Planning also involves weighing the consequences of waiting, and making sure we are okay with the risks we are taking, or the value we are deferring.
Most of us—organization and person alike—will have far more opportunity to do than we have the capacity to deliver. That’s why one of the hardest choices of planning in general—and strategic planning in particular—is not defining what we will do, but what we won’t. Prioritization isn’t making choices between good and bad opportunities. It’s about saying no to good ideas in order to make space for even better ideas to be successful.
When doing gets in the way of planning, we start to lose the opportunity to explore those choices and weigh those opportunities. What’s worse, the planning itself often gets compromised, because we don’t give it the time, focus and attention that it needs to be successful.
The necessary question, then, is how do we make space for the planning to happen? And what do we do to manage what we’ve currently got on our plate, so that we can actually plan well? We can’t pretend that we are going to stop everything. Work needs to continue and progress. But that can’t come at the expense of building plans that allow us to establish focus and assert control over our schedules and commitments.
And so, a practical guide to plan sufficiently to make time and space for planning:
For starters, it’s critical to make a list of everything—absolutely everything—that you’ve currently got on the go. Big, medium, or small, what are all of the items and initiatives that are currently on your horizon that you’ve actually made a commitment to follow through on?
Separately, build a list of everything else you’ve identified as a priority that you don’t currently have commitments to follow through on. Psychologically, it’s important that we’ve captured these as well. We haven’t taken action on them, but we don’t have to expend energy on trying to remember that they are things that we want to do.
For everything that’s currently in flight that you have a commitment around, assess it from two different viewpoints:
- how urgent is it?
- how significant are the consequences if it doesn’t happen now?
- how important is it?
Also note the reasons why you feel it’s urgent, what the actual risks and consequences of not doing it are, and the reasons that you believe it to be as important as you perceive.
As Stephen Covey famously popularized in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effectively People, we excel at responding to urgent, often at the expense of important. And that’s fine. In this exercise, we’re still going to do that. Because in my view, the most important thing is building a plan. And what I’m trying to do is create the space and time to build a plan. So what we need to do is triage what we’ve got on the go, in order to figure out what we should have on the go.
Once you’ve got a list, and you’ve ranked urgency, risk and importance (and a simple designation of high, medium and low is probably amply sufficient in terms of level of detail here), then start to sort and group what you’ve got:
- for starters, rank the initiatives and activities by consequence and risk: group them into high, medium and low.
- focussing on your high risk items, further rank them by urgency, again grouping them into high, medium and low.
- finally, importance lets us refine the ranking of our high consequence, high urgency items.
What you optimally have, now, is a list that’s rank ordered based on what you should be doing first, running down to what you should be delivering last. There may be some quibbles on that point, though, so take a scan. If you were to right now only to do those things that were of high consequence and high urgency, could you live with that? What would you have to give up? What would you be losing out on? If there’s anything of nagging criticality, consider moving it up. But only if you can’t realistically bear the consequence of not doing it. Otherwise, leave it where it is.
What that now leaves you with is a couple of important considerations:
- Firstly, how can you schedule those items that were of high urgency and high consequence in a way that is sane, reasonable and appropriate? What does that look like in terms of time? What does that mean in terms of effort? What resources do you need to make them happen? And what happens if you move them out just a little bit more?
- Secondly, for anything that isn’t urgent and isn’t of significant consequence, what do you need to do to manage expectations? How can you create acceptance that those items won’t proceed right now? Recognize that in doing so, you aren’t saying “no.” You’re saying, “not right now.” And in particular, you’re saying “not until we have a plan that appropriately prioritizes this against all of the other work, commitments, opportunities and requirements that will positively move us forward.
The interesting thing about all of this is two-fold: one, you should have managed to say “not now” to a number of significant initiatives that you have until now been expending considerable time and energy on. Secondly, and possibly more importantly, you should have come to the appreciation that a surprising number of stakeholders are surprisingly reasonable about managing expectations and juggling priorities when you give them a compelling expectation of what you can do, what you can’t and when you will have a more meaningful answer for them.
There is never a good time to plan. And yet, planning is critical. The problem is that without taking time to do it—and to do it well—we keep on responding to the opportunities immediately before us. We lurch between fires, or are compelled by shiny new objects, without building a clear picture of where those opportunities fit in our overall world of commitments, desires, priorities and preferences. If we want to do differently, we need to plan differently. And that means making time to make plans happen.