Natural Planning

Posted on March 16, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Because best is much better than good, it is always a good idea to take time to do some planning anytime you take on a project – even if it is a simple project, planning pays. The following 4-step natural planning model is derived from more than six years using David Allen’s Getting Things Done model (aka GTD) for time management plus another nearly 30 years of personal training, reading and trial and error. Although the GTD site is generally a good resource for tips that support the books, I found nothing on this topic, so I’m putting an article here for reference.

Natural planning is “natural” because we do it whether consciously or not… it happens naturally. What makes this concept powerful is that it specifically takes a “one size DOES NOT fit all” approach to planning. Sometimes having a robust and powerful project management software tool is necessary, these are also the projects with a dedicated “controller” whose fulltime job is to maintain the project plan and coordinate progress reports with the leads who are accountable for deliverables. Face it, 99.9% of projects do not have controllers and MS Project is overkill!

The following process works well using a spreadsheet program (Excel or Google Docs, etc) but can also be done in a project notebook or – my favorite – in the notes section of an Outlook Appointment or Task. (I like using Outlook appointments and tasks for two reasons, it keeps me in a single system and I can add a reminder.)

1. What Needs to Be Done?

Whether its just you or you and a hundred colleagues, explicitly stated purpose, vision, goals and metrics will play a unique and important role in getting things done. In more complex projects, these activities are often separate steps. When the project is small, they may be identified in a single step.

  • PURPOSE shows how this project fits with the bigger scheme of the company or your life. In bigger projects, purpose may never be fully realized. Then again, it might be as mundane and routine as “make sure my children’s teeth are healthy.”
  • VISION is the concrete form of the purpose, something you can literally “see.” For a company in the business of providing consulting services for a technology sector, it might be, “become the leading provider of XYZ services to ABC industry.”
  • GOALS are where you start to get “messy.” Some people will argue about objectives versus goals but don’t let that distract you. All are a form of nesting that simply make the goals easier to organize and track. Go with whatever terminology makes the best sense and get on with things. See my previous article on Linking Strategy to Tactics for details on goals.
  • METRICS sounds¬†fancy, but only means knowing when you are finished. Will you have completed manufacturing of X number of widgets or will you have shipped them? Will you want them sold or is having booked orders good enough? It is always easier to answer these questions before you start than at the conclusion of the project!

2. Brainstorming

Having come from an engineer-driven work culture, I know very well the appeal immediate action has for getting things done. There is nothing more satisfying than identifying a problem, seeing its root cause and dispensing with a quick fix. However, often in life “slow is fast.” Meaning, if you have the time to think through various options, solicit input and gather data, you will be better off in the long term. Unless you work in an emergency room, first responder services or the military, there are very few real “emergencies”. (A wise, former boss used to remind me, “if it’s important it will still be here in the morning.”) A few hours of perspective or a few trusted colleagues’ differing perspectives may provide unique options you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

3. Organizing

Do yourself a favor, while your plans are fresh and current, write them down! And write them as if they are for someone who has no knowledge of what was discussed. In the 2000 movie Momento, the protagonist is attempting to remember who killed his wife, but he’s sustained a blow to the head and loses his short term memory. Every time he falls asleep his memory is cleared and he has to start over. He attempts to write notes to remind him of what he’s learned, but they are too cryptic to be of value. Don’t be like Leonard in Momento, write your notes as if you have no short term memory.

When organizing my project plan, I’ve found it powerful to collect who, when and how measured. That is, who is responsible for getting the task accomplished (you may find the RACI model useful in keeping track of roles and responsibilities if your project is complex); when will the task be completed; and how will you know the project is finished?

4. Next Actions

Make the question, “what comes next?” automatic after every meeting, phone conversation or commitment you make. Planning is no different. By asking this next action question, you focus your energies on where they’ll matter most – the very next step closer to completion.


My rule of thumb is, anytime I feel nothing is getting done, lower my perspective; and when things are chaotic, raise my perspective. Simply put, when it feels like I’m working hard without getting anything accomplished, my perspective is too lofty. Lowering my perspective means I switch from a focus on the big picture and ask, “what is the very next thing that needs to get done?” This usually causes me to split up my existing tasks or add new details to my task list.

On the other hand, when I am so deep-in-the-muck that I feel overwhelmed… my thinking is too grounded. Chaos is a sign of activity not guided by purpose. This is where reminding myself of why I am here is useful and can often provide the perspective to either jump back into the fray or decide to change the game altogether.

Happy Planning!

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