Thursday, October 23, 2008

How Leaders Create Effective Plans

After leaving my position as Chief Administrative Officer of the Institute at UCLA, I started my own company and developed our first product -- an interactive CD-ROM called Strategy. This innovative product automated marketing for medical imaging centers. It even led users through a step-by-step process of creating an individualized marketing plan. My conservative goal was to realize $100,000 in profit after the first year. Unfortunately, the product did not sell well. At the end of one year, I was $50,000 in debt. Two years later, I had doubled the debt and come within a whisker of losing my home. (I'm still convinced it would have been a bestseller... if more people bought it! :-) My failure is a lesson for all leaders.

Most leaders know how to set goals. Some may even know that Professors Locke and Latham wrote the definitive book on the topic called ‘A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance,’ in which they review 393 separate research studies on goal setting involving over 40,000 subjects. (1) Their comprehensive review proves that setting goals can indeed improve performance for you, your team, and your organization. However, what most leaders DON’T understand is that these researchers also discovered that as goals become more difficult, the predictive value of having goals starts to decrease.

"Across the range of goal setting studies using different tasks, the magnitude of goal effects on performance decreases as the complexity of the goal increases."

Professors Locke and Latham

Think of the relationship between goal difficulty and achievement as an inverted U-shaped curve (i.e., ). Goal difficulty is along the bottom, the X-axis. Goal achievement is along the left side, the Y-axis. As goals become increasingly difficult, the probability of achieving goals starts to fall past the midpoint (i.e., along the right hand side of the curve -- ). Since you probably pursue challenging goals on a regular basis, the question becomes, how can you increase the probability that you actually reach your difficult goals?

Our research with Zig Ziglar and Professor Locke has shown that the number one key to reaching any difficult goal is to create an effective plan. (2) And as goals become harder, the plan to reach them becomes increasingly important. Ironically, I had created a product that automated marketing plans and had failed to create a plan for my very own business. (We plan to fail when we fail to plan.) Think of it this way; if you had a desire to venture forth to a land far, far away (i.e., your goal), your chances of reaching this destination would be small unless you had a map -- a Global Positioning System (i.e., GPS) -- to show you the way. Listed below are the three fundamental steps needed to generate such a plan. They are the tools to drawing a map to your destination.

1. Define the deliverable.

2. Determine who should be on the team.

3. Decide on the tasks and time frames.

1. Define the deliverable. Achieving a goal begins by describing exactly what the end result should look like. You must describe why this project is important and how it relates to the overall strategy of your organization. The scope must also include critical success factors. These are the five to ten deliverables that your project must achieve if your stakeholders are going to call your project a success. The critical success factors describe the general characteristics of your project. For example, if your goal was to install a new information system by a particular date, the critical success factors could include security features, compatibility issues, or timing of the installation.

The scope also must include the assumptions associated with the project. Assumptions are those things that you believe to be true but have not been proven to be true. My favorite way to ferret out the assumptions is to brainstorm with those familiar with what I'm trying to achieve. For example, you could stand at a flipchart and write the words I assume across the top. Then, ask people to complete the sentence I assume... while you write down whatever they say. This is not the time to process what they say, just write it down. Discuss the assumptions and how to deal with them after brainstorming. Assumptions ignored become risks.

To mitigate risks, adapt the brainstorming exercise described above to first identify the risks to your goal. For example, you might want to write the sentence, Risks to this project include... Once again, write whatever your team says. Separate idea generation from idea evaluation to maximize contribution. All risks are not created equal. Therefore, once you have identified the risks, categorize them using the two major dimensions of probability and impact. Ask your team to help you place each risk in one of the nine boxes seen in chart below.


2. Determine who should be on the team. Most goals cannot be achieved alone. After you've defined the deliverable, consider the personnel required to execute your plan. The primary criteria in selecting team members should be the skills and subject matter expertise necessary to implement the plan. Work with your management team and obtain the people required to deliver on the scope.

3. Outline in the tasks. An effective plan must include a list of the tasks that must be completed. My favorite way of generating a task list is to first, schedule a ‘task-creation meeting.’ A few days prior to the meeting, ask each team member to e-mail you a list of the tasks necessary to complete their portion of the project. Organize these tasks in a spreadsheet. For larger tasks, use project management software. Then, at the meeting, brainstorm the tasks that may have been missed when people worked on their own. The last step is to fill in the time frames necessary to complete the tasks. An example of a “major” task spreadsheet is seen below. These are tasks at the “10,000” foot level. Most task lists contain many smaller tasks. Feel free to adapt it to suit your project plan.


When I left UCLA, I sailed the seas without a map and almost became shipwrecked. Don't let that happen to you. Whenever you set a goal, create a plan to reach your goal using these three fundamental steps. Let me know what other steps you take to reach your destination or how you adapt the ones described here.

Keep on eXpanding,


1. Locke E and Latham G: A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance. Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, 1990.

2. Goldman B, Masterson S, Locke E, Groth, M, Jensen D: Goal-directedness and Personal Identity as Correlates of Life Outcomes. Psychological Reports 91:153-166, 2002.

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