Use IDEA / PROPOSAL / PLAN and bring clarity to confusing situations.

Last year, I published my 11 most important lessons from Microsoft email, and over 25,000 people read it and forwarded it to their friends and colleagues. Many people asked me to write in more depth about the topics in the email, so I’m starting with #6 “Idea/Proposal/Plan”. I’ve spent the last year writing extensively and will share more of that content at If you find it useful, please forward these articles and subscribe to my email list.

Have you ever been a meeting like where you’ve said something that you thought was just an idea, but your teammates thought you were changing the plan? When you do this people are confused and will execute poorly. But that’s only a small part of the problem you created. The most destructive element of your communication blunder impacts the people who were not part of the conversation. They will hear through the grapevine that you’re trying to change the plan and be upset (furious?) that they were not involved in this strategic conversation. Even though you didn’t intend to adjust the plan, your teammates will hear that you were trying to change the plan. And they will hate you for not engaging with them. This leads to frustration, distrust, low morale, and attrition. All because you weren’t clear that you were talking about an idea and not a plan.


I was just thinking out loud. I didn’t mean for you to actually do it!

When influential people speak, team members are primed to take action. Action is good. Action equals progress. Action is praised. Everyone is rewarded for action. Action! Action! Action! Far too often, people interpret an idea as a plan. This miscommunication sows confusion and frustration across the team. It creates cascading problems which are damaging to strategy, execution, and morale:

Improper execution against half-baked ideas

When the team takes premature action, there are usually negative consequences. They then have to unwind their work and clear up the miscommunications. The result is more wasted time, frustration, and angry co-workers. 

Owners of the work are upset they weren’t consulted

The people who are actually doing the work are justifiably mad on multiple fronts. They perceive that a decision was made about their work, and they weren’t shown the respect of being consulted. We all know that if you want people to maintain their enthusiasm, you must talk to them about decisions that impact them directly. When the manager’s idea is misinterpreted as a plan, and then the owner hears it through the grapevine, it’s a double whammy! Feelings are hurt, AND people take the wrong action.

Conflict within the team

One person heard one thing. Another heard something else. They argue about their manager’s intentions, and perhaps even give conflicting instructions to other team members, which leads to more confusion and frustration. Is that what we want as leaders?

Manager is misunderstood and maligned

The manager is viewed as being “random” because they seemingly gave direction without discussion or planning. Even though the manager did not provide specific instructions, their lack of clarity left an opening for misinterpretation, which resulted in action.

Little faith that future decisions are durable

If the manager can appear to make such capricious decisions now, what prevents them from doing so in the future? And if that’s the case, why should team members dedicate themselves to a strategy when it can flip on a dime and without discussion? 

The leader did not intend for any of this to happen. But the leader created this situation! They confused the team by being unclear on whether they were talking about an idea or giving direction on a plan. How could they have avoided this in the first place?


Idea / Proposal / Plan 

The root of the chaos is that folks don’t know if you’re talking about an idea, a proposal, or a plan. First, some definitions. 

Idea = Brainstorming
Something you’re considering, but don’t have a fixed point of view. You want to discuss with others to determine if the idea has merit.

Ex: We should take a trip this winter.

Proposal = Feedback 
If you decide that the idea is indeed a good one, and you want to take action, then you’ll need a proposal. A proposal includes enough details about the idea to get specific feedback.

Ex: Let’s go to Hawaii in early January and stay for one week.

Plan = Execution
A plan is concrete and includes enough details so that people can take action.

Ex: On January 12th- 19th, we are going to Maui. We will fly on Hawaiian air flights #123/#456 and stay six nights at the Maui Hilton in Lahaina.


Good rules of thumb

When talking to team members, be intentional in your communications and state whether you are talking about an idea, a proposal, or a plan.  

In discussing an idea, it’s good to over-emphasize the fact that you are not yet talking about a plan. Use phrases like “I want to discuss an idea with you to improve the idea and come up with a short proposal.” Or “I do not have a plan for this and am still forming the idea. I would love your input.” When at the whiteboard, I will draw a cloud around the notes on the whiteboard to indicate that we are in a brainstorming mode. 

It is common to misinterpret a proposal as a plan. Do your team a favor and make it very clear that what you are talking about is still a proposal and not yet a plan. You can achieve this by saying, “I have a proposal and would like everyone to poke holes in it so that we can transform it into a plan.” Or even, “I’m not asking anyone to take action yet. I’m here to share my proposal and to get your feedback. I’ll have a baked plan next week.”

In its simplest form, a plan is a list where each item on the list has three elements: action, owner, and date. Preferably, the plan is written down and shared amongst all the stakeholders, there is only one owner for each action, and the owner has agreed to the completion date. When you write down names and dates, it becomes clear to everyone that you are talking about a real plan and that you expect action.  

When you are a participant, you can drive clarity by asking the question, “Is this an idea, a proposal, or a plan?” You’ll be amazed at how many times you will hear “This an idea,” and others in the room will breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Thank goodness! We thought this was a new plan!”. And if the reply is “I don’t know what you mean,” it’s a chance for you to introduce the Idea/Proposal/Plan concept and evangelize this type of thinking across your organization. 

By introducing and consistently using this vocabulary, your teammates can get into the proper mindset and contribute effectively to the conversations.

Morale will take a big leap forward 

People have a deep desire to do great work. They want to be included in the process, gain clarity on what to execute, and when to do it. By using the Idea/Proposal/Plan construct, you are creating a framework that has numerous positives and avoids so many negatives. When people know that you’re discussing an idea, they are more freewheeling in their communications and open up to new and creative paths. You foster a feeling of safety, and even if you discard a suggestion, it’s okay because we’re in the idea phase.   

The feeling of not being included is a big morale killer. By having a clear proposal phase, you create an opportunity to include all the stakeholders and sidestep this pitfall. By being involved, the stakeholders will feel more invested in the execution phase once a plan is in place. Inclusion leads to timely higher quality and a willingness to do it again and again. 

As a bonus, you can use this construct in your personal life. You’ll be amazed at how much confusion you can circumvent with your family and friends when you’re clear about your ideas versus plans

Start thinking and talking in terms of Idea/Proposal/Plan and watch the clarity rise and the turmoil subside.