I keep running headlong into walls. They stop me cold. My face is marred with the scars from years of journeying into, and then over, the walls that keep me from executing on the right and best endeavors. These walls keep me from getting good things done.
I have noticed five walls that constantly seem to pop up, one right after another, like a never-ending maze of mirrors that trips me each time.
- It starts with my inability to see clearly what needs to be done. Perhaps the past or current experiences are keeping me from discerning my next steps, but I can’t execute on what I can’t envision or imagine. I need an epiphany. Without a good idea, there is no execution.
- Once I grasp a good idea, I sprint down the path toward the goal, epiphany in hand, only to come face to face with the wall called context. The idea is not fully developed; there is no clarity of strategy. The idea is only in my head or perhaps scratched out on a cocktail napkin. It needs to be held up to the light and mapped out enough to prove it’s worth in the greater scheme of things. Not a dissertation, but rather a simple map of objectives around what this idea will do, if successful.
- Then I lose my footing and come against the wall called framework. Without a framework for getting things done, my idea will compete with all the noise, the cacophony of the busy life lived in a busy world. One thing will drive out another, displaced by the loudest voice arresting my attention. Soon my good idea will simply drift away due to lack of attention. A daily or periodic execution framework is vital to getting anything valuable completed, and this new good idea must get dropped into a framework of execution.
- As I climb over the framework wall, I get up to speed again only to hit the next wall called laziness. This is the worst wall for me, as I have up to this point relied solely on talent. But work ethic, or grit — the ability to persevere through mundanity and pain — is a character quality. This is where accountability comes in. I need people and a system around me to remind me to keep going even when I don’t feel like it.
- Finally, after executing day in and day out, I run victoriously over the finish line. But the last wall is invisible, and unfelt as I come against it. Only the shrewd see it and stop to read what is written there. I, being generally non-shrewd and overcome with the thrill of victory, often run right through this wall with no interest in observing the wisdom found inscribed on it. It’s just one word, “Review,” and it is faintly etched, like the eroded name on a headstone. Over the course of executing my good idea, I learned a lot, most of it the hard way. Without revisiting the steps and assessing the wins and losses, inputs and outputs, costs and returns, I am bound to repeat my mistakes on the next leg of my journey.
No wonder my face hurts.
So, what to do?
Start with the end in mind. Imagine if you can the completion of the idea, looking backward. If you are doing a review of how your project went, what would you want to be analyzing? What results would you want to be reviewing? Imagine what could have possibly gone wrong, and what could have gone right.
The key at this point is to take a previous project, one that you have worked on in the past, and analyze that one. The current project will one day be in the past as well. Do an “after action review” on that project. The “after-action review”, or A.A.R. is a common exercise which military units perform after a mission and it takes the form of answering a set of five simple questions: What were our objectives? What actually happened? What caused that to happen? What will we do differently next mission? What will we do the same?
So practice on a previous mission of yours, a former project that is now over. What were your objectives on that project? Usually, we have no written list of clear objectives. Yes, there may be a compelling reason to execute on the idea, but at the beginning of a project, more often than not, clear and concise objectives have not been decided upon, much less written down.
Writing a list of objectives will help you clarify what exactly you are hoping to accomplish.
With that completed, lets dig in to your current big idea, your epiphany that you think is the next project to execute on.
At this point we are going to pump the brakes just a little. You may be about to embark on a bad idea, and at this stage a little vetting is in order.
Write the idea in the middle of a sheet of paper and put a box around it, and begin to answer some questions about it.
What will this project look like? What will a win look like, and what would a loss look like? What if we didn’t do the project? What harm would come from simply taking a pass? What do your key advisors think about it? Who are your key advisors? What is at risk if we do or (or don’t do) the project?
These are a few great questions to write down around the subject in the middle of the paper. Now go ahead and answer them, but be careful to think deeply and carefully about the answers by giving yourself plenty of time for this exercise.
Next write out a clear set of objectives- but keep it brief and keep it punchy. A handful of bullet points should be sufficient. This will lead right into helping you jump over the next hurdle.
At this stage in developing the project, spell out how it fits into the overall organization, or the broader strategy of where you are going. The goal here is to put the project in question into context with what is currently happening in the organization or in your world. Often these new projects are very disrupting to the rest of the organization, which is merrily working away on the last project (hopefully). You will need a lot of ammunition for convincing the others how this project is necessary and important. Some key elements to consider: manpower, finances, equipment, messaging, schedule, and how to measure key results. How will a success impact your people? Who will drive the project? And most importantly, what will be set aside in order to focus on this? Spelling all of this out in a white board session, or at least a personal journaling session will help get you ready for the next hurdle: Format.
What I mean by format is this: how are you going to project-manage this to completion? Think about how to mechanize the forward motion with software, hardware, and project steps. This can be as simple as laying out a few major steps or sequential points on a white board so all can see what’s next, or more intricately layered into project management systems. But don’t skip this step, or you will wind up stuck in the middle of a losing project. Decide on the key players at this point, at least hypothetically.
And now, execute. You should be able to crush this part, just by following your rough-draft project plan. How to get things done is something you should have plenty of experience in, but for a good overview, read the book “Grit” by Angela Duckworth.
And finally, when you’ve come to a stopping point, review your original objectives. Ask yourself the questions from the A.A.R. above, and answer them to the fullest extent possible. Make sure you include all of the key players in the project, as they will have significant input that you will most likely overlook otherwise. Digest the lessons learned, and capture them somewhere accessible so that you won’t repeat your mistakes on the next project.
And now, go crush it.