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Building a Plan Layer by Layer

LET'S TALK ABOUT SOMETHING THAT'S THEORETICALLY very simple:  the architecture of a plan -- you know, that written thing that's supposed to help guide your activity.  It doesn't matter if we're creating a plan to manage a project or a plan to reinvent an institution, the architecture of it ought to be pretty much the same.  In its most basic, stripped-down state, a plan is a hierarchy of information, built up in layers like the foundation of a house.  

The "house", which the foundation supports, is the result the planner is seeking to achieve.  For the project manager it's completing an activity on time and on/under budget.  For the institutional re-inventor it's about articulating and achieving a new vision or a renewed mission. 

I typically use three different kinds of informational layers in building a plan:  1) broad overarching goals shaped by mission and understandings of external needs and realities; 2) sets of focused activities that, over the life of the plan, will achieve goals; and 3) specific individualized action steps, or tasks, to accomplish activities.  These three layers go by a number of names, but the key is that they form a hierarchy of information -- broad ---> focused ---> specific and individualized -- that I believe is critical to building a foundation strong enough to hold the house we envision.

For many people this is a tough hierarchy to understand, let alone master.  Countless organizations consider a list of tasks, untethered to goals or a mission, as a plan.  But a list of tasks is nothing more than a "to do" list, which can lead an individual or organization in any direction if not informed or kept in check by the informational layers above it.  Here's an example of one organization's "goals" for a five-year period:
  • develop a website
  • develop job descriptions
  • review personnel policies
  • clean out the basement
  • organize filing system
  • collect email addresses of members
Are these really goals?  They are so specific, so obviously boundaried in scope, that they clearly support some larger -- although not articulated -- directions or overarching mission that they really belong in the third layer of information.  It's a lot easier for people to get their heads around tasks, it seems -- and why not? -- many of us live out our daily lives in the form of "to do" lists.   But, if we are ever to accomplish the meaningful stuff of personal or institutional life, we must have the "house" and at least the first layer of information clearly in our sights.

So, here's a thought -- a relatively painless, low-tech, and maybe even fun way to review the construction of your plan:  gather a group together (ideally board members and staff), give them a bunch of colored index cards (one color for goals, one for sets of focused activities, one for tasks) and ask them to dissect your current plan according to those three layers of information.  When everyone is finished, sort the cards by color on a big table.  What emerges?  Will you be changing the colors of some of the information?  After you've done that, what information gaps are you facing?  How will you fill them?

Photo:  Index cards  from redspotted


Anonymous said…
As much as I love all things high tech, I've found nothing that works quite as well as the colored index card for organizing information in a group. Thanks for this great tip for taking some of the mystery out of planning.
I think I'd like to try the index card technique with some of my planning clients. I have a couple of opportunities coming up and plenty of unused index cards!

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