Ahh, the glorious feeling of looking at the month after next on your calendar and seeing whole empty days. How easy it is to be magnanimous and say “yes” when asked to take on a job that isn’t due for two months. So we say “yes,” and put it on the calendar. When another someone asks us to do something in the future, we again check our calendar, see that it’s still pretty empty, and again say “yes.” This happens a few more times, and all of a sudden, the 1st week in December starts looking pretty full.
Then as December 1 approaches, all the things we want to accomplish – long-term projects, researching new programs, reading for professional development – have to get squeezed into the unscheduled times, alongside putting out the inevitable fires that weren’t anticipated, calling our parents, and taking our kid to the doctor.
If we’d scheduled the projects, research, and professional development, then that week wouldn’t have looked so free. We might have more carefully evaluated the request, and said ‘no’ to some of them, in order to have time to accomplish our own long-term goals.
Almost everyone experiences this phenomenon. Dan Ariely, the behavioral economist who wrote Predictably Irrational, said:
“Because of the ways calendars are created, people actually take more meetings than they should… We have this satisfaction of having our calendar seem busy. We have the satisfaction of not saying ‘no’ to things. But at the same time, we’re chasing away things that are important to us for things that are unimportant.”
When you add together the many individuals on a board or in a department, the problem gets compounded. We all know whole departments and companies that fill their time with tasks and meetings, leaving all the workers wondering if they’ve actually accomplished anything. Similarly, nonprofit boards of directors are often left wondering why their strategic plans are never accomplished.
A strategic plan without concrete, timed, scheduled milestones is a wish list.
Several organizations I’ve worked with want to build a stronger board. The sequence goes like this:
- In 2014, they stated that by the year 2017 we’ll have a stronger, more diverse board, representative of the community.
- In 2016, they determine that by 2019 we’ll have a stronger board, representative of the community.
- In 2018, are they going to say that by 2021 we’ll have a stronger, more diverse board, representative of the community?
Probably. Unless they schedule the time to think through what it will take to make that shift. Then schedule the time to execute each step on that newly planned path.
We all have the best intentions in the world to accomplish our strategic plans. Yet without putting them on the calendar, those planned goals are going to get squeezed out by the so-easily scheduled meetings, the inevitable fires, and the daily tasks that we take for granted and therefore forget that they take time.
Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence and A Passion for Excellence is famous for the dictum, “What’s measured gets done.” Back in business school, I learned this phrase as a component of Managing by Objective, which requires that these critical questions be answered:
- What are you planning to do?
- Who will be in charge?
- By when will it be accomplished?
The problem is that MBO leaves out the step of scheduling the time to actually work on it. There is still room for procrastination. Even if the objective is accomplished, nothing keeps it from being done at the last minute or squeezed into inconvenient half-hour chunks of time around scheduled meetings. The result is frenetic or burned-out workers and volunteers.
After a recent strategic planning session, a participant approached me and said that it was one of the most intense sessions she’d ever experienced. She really felt that they had the path forward. She said the biggest difference was that they actually set completion dates for every activity, and scheduled when they would work on it.
On the two hour drive home, I remembered Ariely’s column about personal planning. In an aha moment, I realized that while setting milestones may get activities accomplished, it’s:
- Acknowledging that those milestones exist,
- Keeping them in front us, and
- Scheduling the time to accomplish them,
that makes the plan realistic.
Scheduling the time in which to accomplish the milestones forces you to acknowledge that accomplishing these goals will take time. It makes it a lot easier to say ‘no’ to a request that will divert your time away from the agreed-upon goal.
What gets measured gets done. True. What gets scheduled gets done more sanely.
If we don’t plan our own future with the things that matter to us, then we relinquish our future to the obligations of others.