“A goal without a plan is just a wish,” according to a proverb often attributed to French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Pretty straightforward, hard to dispute, but difficult to live by.
We take on a project, formulate a vague idea of how we’re going to do it, then jump in. It can be as simple as tackling today’s to-do list, or as complicated as starting development of a new course. And while action is good, planned action is even better. So why don’t we plan more often and more completely? I’d suggest two primary reasons: 1) the task doesn’t seem to warrant a plan and 2) planning doesn’t seem productive.
Reason #1: "The task doesn’t seem to warrant a plan"
On the first count, my to-do list is a good example: I try to capture everything I need to do, then each day (OK, most days) I select the items I need to get done that day, pick one and get started. My only plan is to pick the one that seems most urgent or important-—two very different criteria that I don’t typically give enough thought to—and get it done as quickly as I can. What usually happens is: I work hard, get some things done, don’t finish everything I set out to complete (that is, my goal), and the things I do complete are just as likely to be unimportant as important.
But what would a plan look like in this context? It would start with an evaluation of what’s urgent and important, urgent but unimportant, not urgent but important, and not urgent and not important. Then I’d set my task priorities accordingly and do some time planning, such as projecting that I can do task #1 by 10 a.m., task #2 by noon, and so on.
OK, now I’ve got task priorities and overall time factored in, but I need a work plan. What are the steps to completing task #1? Do I have all the resources, or will I get stuck in the middle and have to put it aside while I wait on something? How will I go about the work? And now that I’ve evaluated what it will take to get the task done, is my overall time projection still accurate? All of this should take five to 10 minutes and result in a plan for my work for the day.
Et voilà! Now I have a goal, not just a wish. Take that, Monsieur Saint-Exupéry!
Reason #2: "Planning doesn’t seem productive"
"Yeah, but planning is boring. Things never go according to plan. I’m not very good at planning. And I never know enough at the beginning to create a good plan. In other words, planning just doesn’t seem that productive." As a result, we make a few decisions, like: first I’ll interview all the SMEs to understand what needs to be included in the course; then I’ll write the learning objectives; and after that I’ll see where things stand and decide the next step.
OK, you’ve got the beginnings of a plan, but it’s not complete or SMART (as you'll remember, that's Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based). You don’t have to be a project manager to develop training curriculum...Well, OK, maybe you do. Maybe you need to think of yourself as an instructional designer and a project manager.
I’m not suggesting you become a certified PMP (although there would certainly be benefits to that). But sometimes you have to put on your project manager’s hat and think like one. And project managers can’t work without a plan. Their plan might be in some fancy software that you don’t have, but you can step up your planning game with some very simple, easy-to-use tools that you likely already have, such as Excel or Word (or Smartsheet, if you really want to go all in).
But the tool is the easy part. The hard part is making the hard part easy, which I’m going to do for you right now. Here goes: Think "what," "when" and "who."
1. "What" has to happen?
Talk to the SMEs, write learning objectives, develop a course outline, develop the instructional design, write the instructional portion of the curriculum, create graphics, develop exercises, write the assessments, schedule the classes, promote the classes, create tools to measure the effectiveness, and develop a plan to keep the content updated.
That wasn’t too hard, was it? The steps were pretty much the same as with all the other courses you've developed, so you really did know everything you needed to know in order to plan. OK, now instead of listing the “what” steps in a paragraph, put each of them in one cell of a column down the left side of an Excel spreadsheet.
2. "When" do these things need to happen?
How long will it take me to talk to the SMEs? Two days. OK, that’s day 1 and 2 of the project. After I’ve talked to the SMEs, I can write the learning objectives, which I need to do before I can develop the course outline. I get a lot of interruptions, so I'll need three days to write the learning objectives: days 3, 4 and 5.
It’s not that hard. You’ve probably done it before. So don’t fight it or procrastinate. Just think it through and run the days out in a row of your spreadsheet and shade the cells under days 1 and 2 in the row next to first task—talk to the SMEs—to indicate that your plan is to complete that work in the first two project days. Drop down a line and shade days 3-5 in the “write learning objectives" row...and keep going.
3. "Who" has to do it?
You no doubt have the picture. Just add a column for “owner” and indicate who is responsible for completing each task.
Now you have a plan that you can follow, adjust as things change, and increase the likelihood of getting the project done successfully. No rocket science here, and probably not much you didn’t already know. Just a reminder of the importance of planning and some ideas to help you overcome the temptation to skip it, or the fear that you won’t do it correctly.