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 that’s what I’m doing. I’ve spent the last year writing and will share more of that content at AlexHinrichs.com. If you find this interesting, please forward the articles, subscribe to my email list, and follow me on LinkedIn.
During my career, I’ve written many plans and participated in a multitude of planning processes. In this article, I’ll share the benefits of writing down the plan. You can read about the distinction between an idea, a proposal, and a plan.
We don’t need a plan
I’ll bet you a dollar that you’ve heard these lines before:
“We don’t have time to write down the plan.”
“Things are moving so fast that any plan is immediately invalid.”
“Why spend time on a plan? No one’s going to follow it anyway.”
“I don’t want a plan to restrain our creativity.”
When you heard this, maybe you shrugged your shoulders and thought, “I guess on this team, they don’t create plans.” Or perhaps, you ignored the naysayers and created a plan anyway. You did it because, in your heart, you knew it was the right thing to do but couldn’t articulate why.
Plans are useless
But planning is everything
-Dwight D. Eisenhower
The quote is a bit extreme, but I agree with the core point. While we may not follow the plan as initially written, there is tremendous value in the creation of the plan.
The truth is, the naysayers have a point. In the wrong hands, a plan can be used to bludgeon a team into a concrete pigeon-hole. The key is to understand that a plan is a starting point, and you must be willing to modify the plan as conditions change. Tell the naysayers this up-front and let them know that they will be involved in both the creation of the plan and in the adjustments during execution.
For example, imagine that you and a friend are going to drive from San Francisco to Boston. Before heading out, it’s a good idea to know how many days you’ll be on the road, what route you will drive, where you will stay each night, and how much money to budget. That way, you and your friend will have shared expectations on the plans, timing, and cost. Doing this reduces disagreements, disappointments, and hurt feelings. During the trip, you may decide to detour to Vegas, or see your friends in Chicago, or stop at the Jim Beam distillery. Anything is possible. By starting with a plan, it gives the two of you a baseline for making changes along the way.
Why do I need to write down the plan?
Many times, you’ll hear, “We all know what the plan is. Let’s get to work!”. This type of thinking is rife with danger, as it’s rare that everyone really knows what the plan is, and invariably, their personal version of the plan is full of assumptions.
The primary benefits to writing down the plan are Writing = Clarity of thought; Goals and Non-Goals are enumerated; and Gaps, weaknesses, and obstacles are identified.
1. Writing = Clarity of Thought
When you put your butt in the chair and write down “the plan,” you force yourself to be very clear. You know that others are going to read, critique, and take action on the words you put down on paper, and this pressure forges clarity of thought.
2. Define the Goals and Non-Goals
All plans benefit from constraints. What we are going to do and what we are not going to do. The “going to do” is the catalyst for the plan in the first place. But it is the “not going to do” that may be the most valuable part of the plan. In defining the “not going to do,” you are creating focus and defending against wasted effort on non-goals.
3. Gaps, weaknesses, and obstacles identified
When you force yourself to write the plan, the gaps and barriers become much more apparent. The documented plan is a fantastic framework for capturing these holes, as you can note them in writing as follow-ups, and use subsequent feedback and review sessions to fill in those gaps.
How does the plan help my team?
Once you have created a draft version of “the plan” (i.e., a proposal ), you can engage your teammates and get their feedback. The benefits of gathering input are Communication; Improvements to the plan; Engagement and ownership; and a Baseline for future changes
For the stakeholders to give feedback on the plan, they must read what you wrote, and thus your thinking is communicated to your teammate. There are various levels of stakeholders ranging from “this will be 100% of my job” down to “I’m very curious as I might be impacted.” By having a written plan, it’s easy to share with anyone and everyone who is affected.
5. Improvements to the Plan
You can’t think of everything. The feedback loop is the opportunity for your teammates to poke holes in the proposal and hone it into a plan. Most people love to share their suggestions, so give them the opportunity to shine.
6. Creates Engagement and Ownership
When people are involved in the planning process, and most importantly, give feedback, they feel greater ownership in the execution and outcome of the plan. Conversely, when you don’t ask people for input, they are more likely to be passive participants, or worse, actively work to kill the plan. Be vigilant in gathering feedback as this increases your team’s commitment and dramatically improves the chances of the plan being a success.
7. Baseline for future changes
When no one writes down the plan, it’s very common for one teammate to tell another, “That’s not part of the plan!” and for tension and confusion to arise. When you write down the plan, everyone is starting from the same blueprint, and you mitigate any conflict about the original plan. Then, when the team needs to make a change to the plan, they have a common baseline to work from and can work through the change decision with speed and clarity.
Show leadership and foster a planning culture
Whether you’re the CEO or a new-hire, you will elevate your team by writing down the plan. The process of writing the plan creates clarity, removes ambiguity, and connects the key players. These ideals are at the heart of a healthy organization. And when you do the hard work of writing the plan, you are demonstrating leadership, and your teammates will value you for it.