Lights! Camera! Action!
As a coach in several leadership development programs, I frequently work with
managers and leaders to develop their own personal leadership development plans. A key element of these plans is always an “action plan” designed to help the individual identify specific steps he can take to move forward on his development goals. Similarly, every leadership retreat, strategic planning exercise, or team building engagement I am involved in always concludes with the development of an agreed-upon action plan for the group.
Sounds like a good idea, right? We all know the importance of putting plans down in writing, making them real so they don’t vanish into the thin air of good feeling at the end of some corporate event. But we have all had the experience of putting those action plans in a drawer, if only a mental drawer, and then ultimately feeling bad because no action is ever taken. I think this may be the real reason so many people resist
completing that action plan in the first place: they already know it will become an exercise in guilt.
So how can you, as a leader who really does want to make things better in your organization, engage in action planning that has a better chance of success? I propose a key distinction that may shift your perspective: there are action plans that are really “declarations of intention”, and action plans that are “commitments.” And I think a lot of
angst arises from the inability to recognize the difference when the plan is being devised, and to subsequently treat all plans as though they are hard and fast commitments. And of course, no one likes to break a commitment.
It’s important to be clear on what the purpose and context for an action plan are in any given situation. Here are some good questions to ask yourself, and your group, to better understand that:
Is this a higher-level action plan that is linked directly to lofty strategic goals or a long-term vision? Or is it meant to identify specific tactical actions (hint: what kind of verbs did you use, vague or specific?)
- Is it strictly personal, or does it apply to a larger group or organizational structure?
- Is it tied to a reasonable timeline for completion?
Are the actions included really, truly feasible? How realistic are the goals it fleshes out?
- Is it something you and your team can accomplish alone, or will you have to rely on others to make it happen? How much authority or leverage do you have with those others?
- How stable or fluid is your organizational environment? How good is your understanding of the forces at work on it and in it?
The point is, sometimes it’s perfectly appropriate for your action plan to be a declaration of intentions only. Take, for example, a situation where you are responsible for a startup organization, or you are trying to turn one around. Of course you want to have clear, achievable, actionable goals and a plan to achieve them, but you are also quite likely to find that things are not as you expected them to be once you get into the job at
hand. You may have to make a few detours in order to get new business processes into place, or you may find that the resources you thought you had are not up to the task. You may, in fact, have to take a few steps back and revise your action plan before you can move forward on the original. Or, you may discover that the opportunities available to you are bigger, better, or just different than what you thought they would be, and so your action plan no longer fits.
This is where a lot of plans get thrown out the window, and commitments made get scuttled. Wouldn’t it be more effective to think of your action plan in such a situation as a set of intentions, subject to revision as needed? Commitments to take specific actions can be made to others or to the self alone, but in either case, if they are simply abandoned when things change, trust is always at risk.
If commitments have been proposed, accepted, and acknowledged, even by the
individual in conversation only with himself, they need to be renegotiated when the circumstances no longer favor their fulfillment. That’s where things usually break down. It’s helpful to consider whether a solid commitment was really the right path in the first place, or whether shared understanding of the difference between intention and commitment would be a better frame-up for taking effective action. In the end, it’s not about the plan, it’s about how you think about the plan.
Coaching can help you clarify your purpose and develop an action plan that works for you. Let’s talk. Call (410)626-6008, or email email@example.com.
Here are a few tips for composing a good action plan:
- Never put down more than three actions at a time; that’s about all any of us can focus on at one time.
- Always start the statement of an action with a good action verb.
- Consider who else you need to enroll in order to make the action possible.
- Consider what other resources you will need to take effective action.
- Always set a reasonable time deadline, with milestones if possible.
Review your plan at regular intervals and be prepared to revise it if necessary.
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skills needed for balancing checkbooks or figuring restaurant tips.
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belittled and deenergized.” He proposes a methodology for calculating the cost to the organization of an individual’s bad behavior; in one case it totaled to more than $160,000 a year.
Executive Coach, Strategy Consultant
Principal, Bloomfield Associates
The Triple Bottom Line, by Andrew W. Savitz. What I like about it: This book expands our idea of the bottom line to include the broader goals of a sustainable society and environment. It offers practical advice and stories of success that are both readily understandable and even inspiring.
Society for Human Resource Management
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“There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an
answer. There’s the answer.”
-- Gertrude Stein
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Beth Bloomfield is coaching participants in the first-ever Darden School of Business (University of Virginia) MBA for Executives program.