How to Build Effective Plans

How to Build Effective Plans 1

“‘ They have IED buried in the yard, and bunkered machine gun positions in the house,’ said our intelligence officer, with a grave look of concern. It was a hostage rescue mission. The ultimate high-stakes operation. Not only bad guys to kill, but an innocent victim to save. We had trained for missions like this, but they were very rare. Now Task Unit Bruiser had the opportunity to execute such an operation for real—a young Iraqi teenager. The nephew of an Iraqi police colonel had been kidnapped by an Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group. They demanded his family pay a $50,000 ransom and threatened to behead the young man otherwise. Kidnappings and beheadings were common occurrences in Ramadi and Anbar province.

“In those days, often the hostages were tortured or killed. Even if the family paid the ransom, these terrorist kidnappers were evil people—plain and simple and could be counted on to carry out their gruesome threat. For Task Unit Bruiser, there was no time to waste. We needed to put together a plan.”  Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win”, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. 

Just like the SEALs, construction leaders must plan
Perhaps you would like to win some more work; your hit rate is not where it needs to be. Maybe the handoff between your estimating group and your project managers isn’t as clean as you’d like it, so projects don’t get up and running smoothly.  Maybe your team camaraderie could use some work, or you’d like to bridge internal gaps between departments.

Any aspect of the bid build or bill process in your company could need improving, and to focus on those objectives, putting together clear, simple plans that everyone buys into is a crucial skill.

Think before acting
A plan is an orderly proposal for accomplishing an objective. The act of planning is formulating a scheme for the attainment of that objective.

In this post, I’ll cover three aspects of how to plan:

  1. Five essential elements of a good plan.
  2. The pitfalls of planning and how to avoid them.
  3. A practical planning framework that works.

Let’s take a look at the first area—the five essential elements of a good plan.

This isn’t rocket science
The five elements are pretty obvious, and perhaps you are already using them. However, if you miss one or two of them, it can affect your planning process, and cause you to execute in a below-par manner.

  1. What?

What is the end state or objective that you would like to achieve? If you’re going to build an effective plan, you have to be able to identify what it is that you want to accomplish in a straightforward way that people understand.

  1. Why?

Why do you want to achieve that end state or objective? How does it fit into the bigger strategic vision of your organization? When you describe the “what” and the “why,” you get the idea of “mission.”

In Extreme Ownership, Leif Babin comments:

“The mission must explain the overall purpose of the operation. The frontline troops tasked with executing the mission must understand the deeper purpose behind the mission. Planning begins with mission analysis and understanding the what and the why.”

“Leaders must identify clear directives for the team, once they themselves understand the mission. They can impart this knowledge to their key leaders and frontline troops tasked with executing the mission.”

So whatever objective you have, it must be clear how it fits into the greater strategic mission of your company.

  1. How?

How are you going to achieve the mission? Which processes will you use? What resources of time and money and support will you tap? Which pieces of equipment, whether physical or virtual, will be used to execute the mission?

  1. Who?

Who will be involved in the execution of the mission? Which individuals and teams will be held accountable for specific parts of the implementation of the plan? It’s vital that you identify the who, whenever you’re putting any plan together because this will help to layer the accountability that is going to be essential for later execution. Moreover, it will help you when you identify the people and teams involved in the plan because you can then do a SWOT analysis on those or individuals. A SWOT analysis is a look at the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats that manifest as a result of the people that you choose to execute the plan.

Perhaps you’re planning a project with a foreman who does excellent work, but he’s a bit of a prima donna. He knows that he’s good. He knows his guys are good, and he can be a bit of a pain in the neck. You need to take that into account when you put your plan together, particularly in terms of communication, making sure the project manager, superintendent, and foreman are all consistently on the same page.

  1. When?

When are you going to start the pursuit of this objective, and when will you know that it’s finished? Getting a timeframe is critical in terms of tracking.

Those are the five essential elements of a good plan. Make sure you nail each part when you’re putting together a plan.

Now, let’s look at the second aspect of how to plan: the pitfalls of planning, and how to avoid them.

The main pitfalls of planning are:

  1. Ego
  2. Inefficiency
  3. Rigidity

The planning process can be an ego trip: “I must look good.”
Think about the bookshelves in your office. There are likely a few binders on them that have plans you’ve put together in the past which are a bit dusty. Perhaps you brought in some pricey consultants from the other side of the country—paid them six figures to help you with your planning process. They put together some fancy PowerPoints and thick binders. The plan looked good, and you were pumped up after the planning session. However, you got poor results because you didn’t execute.

It doesn’t matter how good your plan looks. It only matters if it helps you achieve your objective. A fancy PowerPoint, big words—are meaningless if you don’t act. Drive towards simplicity and clarity. The simpler you are, the easier it will be to communicate the plan to others.

Months and years?
Another pitfall of planning is inefficiency. Many people don’t have a simple, repeatable process for building a plan. It takes weeks and months and even years to create a plan when it should take hours or at the most days. You need an efficient, repeatable process—particularly in high-stress environments—for making a plan.

The third pitfall of planning is rigidity.Every leader in your organization needs to be able to build clear plans. It helps if you have a planning process that is adaptable and not rigid, that can be used throughout your organization, from the top executive levels down to the folks in the field.

You avoid these pitfalls of planning, as you set aside your ego, and you focus on simple, efficient, and flexible ways of planning.

Finally, let’s take a look at a practical planning framework, that works. It utilizes the five essential elements of a good plan. Moreover, it’s simple, efficient, and flexible.

The process can take as little as an hour. If it’s more strategic in nature, you may take a day or two, but it doesn’t have to take weeks or years. It’s also very flexible. Companies, project teams, and individuals find it useful.

A quick note on simplicity: I’m committed to putting together one-page plans with my client that everyone understands, that are super clear, and that aren’t necessarily impressive. I have no interest in dusty binders, only in one-page plans that get executed.

There are three parts to the framework:

  1. Rally Cry
  2. Fierce Focus
  3. Critical Numbers

The Rally Cry should be obvious and memorable, incorporating the mission, or the WHY and the WHAT. Everyone involved in executing it should understand it and buy into it. It must be inspirational. Align the Rally Cry with the mission of the company and the overall strategic goal. Make it aspirational. It should give people a little bit of “juice” when they think of it first thing in the morning, providing them with energy, packed with hope.

Here are some examples:

Currently, the Golden State Warriors are playing in the NBA finals for the fifth year in a row, competing for their third consecutive title. Their Rally Cry is: “Strength in Numbers.” They have four or five future Hall of Famers on their team, but they understand that it takes 12 to 15 guys on the roster to win a championship because people get injured, people sometimes play badly, and other folks need to step up.

Winning the presidency is incredibly challenging; clear planning is essential.  Think about Bill Clinton’s bid in 1992. The campaign’s Rally Cry wasn’t official, but it was excellent: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Barak Obama in 2008: “Hope and Change”

Donald Trump in 2016: “Make America Great Again”

Nike’s Rally Cry when they started was brutally simple: “Crush Adidas.”

In 1944, when the Allies invaded France everyone from the private in the foxhole, bleeding and dying, to the general behind the lines knew their Rally Cry: “Beat Germany.”

Let’s look at the second area of the planning framework: Fierce Focus.

Each area of Fierce Focus takes into account the HOW, the WHAT, and the WHO of the plan. They answer the question: “How will we accomplish the Rally Cry?”

Remember the first scene of “Saving Private Ryan” when they’re coming ashore on D-Day in the landing craft? Imagine that you’re a unit commander during that operation. Your Rally Cry is “Establish the Beachhead.” What are your areas of Fierce Focus?

  1. Ship to Landing Craft

The invading force didn’t just chug across the English Channel in landing crafts. They got into the big ships first, and when they got close to the beach, they disembarked into the landing crafts. So as a unit commander, your first Fierce Focus is making sure that your guys and their equipment get from the ship to the landing craft.

  1. Landing Craft to Beach

Once in the landing craft, your focus shifts. How will you get as much of your  men and material as possible onto the beach so that, you can work on the final part of the D-Day plan…

  1. Beach to Cliff

Once on the beach, you have to keep moving. The Germans are dug in on the cliffs above, and if you fail to kill or capture them, the whole plan will fail.

Only by executing each area of Fierce Focus, will you achieve the Rally Cry.

Here’s an example from construction.
If you are planning a project and your Rally Cry is “Make Money” your areas of Fierce Focus might be:

  1. Safety – Everyone home safe
  2. Production – Work hard every day
  3. Quality – Minimize the punch list

Here are three questions to ask when establishing areas of Fierce Focus:

  1. How does each one help me to achieve the Rally Cry?
  2. Which individual is ultimately accountable for each Fierce Focus?
  3. Is the burden of responsibility spread appropriately? Sometimes, during the planning process, you’ll get “heroes” who keep putting their hand up and volunteering for each area of Fierce Focus. It’s tempting to keep picking them, but make sure they have the necessary capacity and capability for the responsibility. Also, don’t let other people hide, and shirk their duty of leading an area of Fierce Focus.

Once you have the Rally Cry, and the areas of Fierce Focus, you can move to the last part of the plan: Critical Numbers.

The Critical Numbers can be a metric of some kind, or a date. To shape a great critical number, ask:

  1. Is it explicitly linked to an area of Fierce Focus?
  2. Is it realistic and attainable in the plan’s timeframe?
  3. Will it aid accountability?

Does the person accountable for the area of Fierce Focus understand and have control of the metric?

You may think, “Why bother planning, since nothing ever goes according to plan?”
After all, the military genius Hermann Von Moltke said, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” The planning process isn’t meant to be like Moses coming down off the Mount with Ten Commandments set in stone. The planning process is all about tapping into the collective intelligence and wisdom of your team. You’re seeking to minimize risk and maximize the possibility of success while optimizing the use of your resources and capabilities. You’re also thinking about past activity and bringing forward lessons learned into the present. You’re striking a balance between prudence and boldness.

There’s no such thing as a perfect plan, but the process of putting together the plan helps your action be directed more toward achieving your objective. As you get into action, and you get a reaction to your plan, you can always adjust as you go.

One of my clients committed to a focus of emphasizing cost-control tracking and forecasting in building their projects. Here’s the plan they made:

The Rally Cry was directionally correct, understandable, and easy to communicate. The areas of Fierce Focus involved the everyone responsible for the project’s success, and the Critical Numbers tied directly to activity for which they were responsible. They executed the plan across their projects and had a great year.

In this post we’ve covered:

  1. The five essential elements of a good plan
  2. The pitfalls of planning and how to avoid them
  3. A practical planning framework that works

Let’s go back to the hostage rescue described in Extreme Ownership
The leaders put together a simple plan that everyone understood, and they communicated it out:

“With that, the brief concluded, and SEALS streamed out of the building. Everyone chopped up in their op gear, loaded vehicles, and conducted final equipment checks in a hurry. Jocko and I were the only ones left in the mission planning space, talking through final, big-picture details of our plan.

“Jocko looked at me. ‘I guess you guys are gonna get some,’ he said, with a confident smile and a nod. He fully understood the risks, but he also knew our plan was sound, and our assault force and supporting assets were well-prepared to meet the enemy threat.

“‘ I guess so,’ I said, smiling back at Jocko and nodding in agreement, adding a phrase we used when facing anything particularly challenging or miserable. ‘Good times.’ We walked out to the vehicles where our SEAL assaulters and vehicle crews were standing by, ready to depart. They were fired up. That was the Task Unit Bruiser way. It wasn’t cockiness or overconfidence—on the contrary. Each man knew this was a dangerous operation and that he might very well come back in a body bag. But we were confident in our plan.”

If you keep in mind the five essential elements of a good plan, think about the pitfalls of planning, on how to avoid them, and if you use this planning framework that I have described, then you too can put together clear plans, you can be confident executing.

This planning process is at the heart of a short report I’ve written: Kick-Ass Meetings
I’ve used Kick-Ass Meetings with my clients for years. In addition to detailing the planning process, it will help you to prepare for and conduct productive meetings.

Download the report by going to: