GanttPen2I think I’ve always just naturally broken my professional work down into planning steps and then executed according to that plan, even if it wasn’t done in a formal project plan format. Whether it was a small initiative or set of to do’s that just needed some framework or a major program that needed a full detailed project plan, the need to structure the work was always just a given to me at work.

Recently I’ve been dealing with unexpected personal challenges that have proven to be as complex as any of the projects I’ve been called in to save from a professional perspective. I’ve had several people comment on how quickly I’ve been able to move things forward and how little these challenges seem to have overwhelmed me when they felt that if put in a similar situation they would have found things spinning around them.

I realized when I heard those comments the secret to my ability to dealing with even the big unexpected challenges – a plan. Not that I had a plan before all of this started, but that I realized immediately when it happened the same feeling of need to add structure as what I have professionally when I’m parachuted into a problem project. You can’t necessarily plan for the unexpected, but when the unexpected happens you need to quickly build the plan to deal with it.

The first step to any plan is to understand the basic problem or problems you face and need to solve for. They key to a good problem statement is to break it down to the simple core issue you are facing in a factual way. Problem statements should be a single (not run on) sentence that identifies a single specific aspect of the overall challenge. When your challenge is simple you may be able to boil it down to a single problem statement, when it is more complex you may wind up with several.

Once you have clarity on the problem(s) at hand you can start to determine what a successful outcome to the problem would be. Each problem statement should have a desired outcome, and in complex or fast moving challenges you should also define a minimally acceptable outcome. Knowing what you want and what you would be willing to accept can help you structure the steps and trade-offs you need to make in building the rest of your plan.

Finally once you understand where you are (problem statement) and where you want to get to (outcomes) you can build the steps you need to execute to get there. You can use something as simple as a pen and paper and build your to-do list there, desktop tools like the To Do list in Microsoft Outlook, or project organization or planning tools like Asana (www.asana.com) or Microsoft Outlook. Group your to-do’s or tasks into logical groupings and assign yourself completion dates for each step that are reasonable but structured. Unreasonable dates don’t help you get the work done faster, but not having dates breeds procrastination when you are facing a significant challenge and all of the tasks you need to execute are hard or moderately hard to do.

Without building and holding myself to a plan I wouldn’t have been able to manage the challenges I have faced over the last month as calmly and seemingly easily as I have. The emotions and perceived magnitude of the challenge would have caused me to freeze and spin. By leveraging my planning tools from my professional life I’ve been able to maintain stability and solve more of what felt like an unsolveable problem at the outset than I ever imagined when it all started.

For those things that you can plan for and are reasonably expected we all know that failing to plan is planning to fail. But by the same token when we face unexpected challenges (even the big hairy ones) failing to build a plan when it happens is akin to accepting the impossibility of the situation you face. Problems and challenges are only impossible without a plan. With a plan, we can accomplish almost anything.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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