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Reaching goals hinges on effective planning. Here’s what that looks like.

Be ready when someone asks, “What’s the plan?” by mastering these five effective planning steps.

Whether you have individual or team goals at work, broader goals for the business, or personal goals for your life, you should also have a plan to achieve those goals. Effective planning and goal accomplishment go hand in hand. Planning doesn’t exist without a goal to shoot for, and goals are rarely realized without a solid plan.

5 Steps of Effective Planning

Step 1: Start SMART by setting and clarifying goals.

Avoid wasting time and effort by making sure the goal you’re shooting for is meaningful and measurable. Be specific and aim high, too. Psychologist Edwin Locke found that over 90% of the time, goals that were specific and challenging, but not too challenging, led to higher performance than easy goals or goals that were too generic, such as a goal to “do your best.” Goal performance is strongest when people are committed, and even more so when the goals are difficult.



What goal are you…

Create a highly detailed statement…



How will you know…

You can’t manage or improve upon…



What actions will you…

Be realistic about whether it’s…



Is your goal important…

What makes this goal meaningful…



What is your timeline…

Remember that thing you said you’d accomplish…

Step 2: Make a preliminary plan.

Gather a planning team to outline the initial concept of the plan. Define the tasks needed, milestones, and deadlines, considering the “3 T’s”:

  •  Time (production time, understanding what can be done)
    • How much time you think it’s going to take (estimate)
    • How much time you have (reality)
    • How long you think each task is going to take (related to talent)
  •  Treasure (budget, costs)
    • How much you think it’s going to cost (estimate)
    • How much it is costing (reality—you’ll revisit this as the plan progresses)
  • Talent (skills, knowledge)
    • What talent you think you need, when you need it, where to get it, and how much it costs
    • Ensuring you have at least the minimum talent to do what needs to get done

Note that as you progress toward your goal, you’ll revisit and revise the 3 T’s as needed.

Step 3: Finalize the plan.

Here, you drill down to refine the preliminary list of tasks, and back-plan—working backward from the end goal to sequence milestones appropriately and set deadlines. Don’t skip this step or you risk trying to squeeze too many tasks into too little time.

Add clarity, remove doubt, and unearth pertinent questions, concerns, and opinions by hammering out the 5W’s and 1H:

  • Who is the best person to own and/or complete each task?
  • What are the goals, objectives, and associated tasks or actions?
  • Where will the project (or tasks/milestones associated with the project) occur?
  • When will the tasks/milestones happen (date/time)?
  • Why is it important, quantitatively and qualitatively (WIIFM)?
  • How are you going to do it? What are the steps to achieve your objective?

Step 4: Communicate the plan to the team.

Share the plan with the pertinent people. Communicate the 5Ws and 1H, and the details of key roles, responsibilities, tasks, who reports to whom, milestones, and timeline. But first: Review these 5 keys to effective communication to be sure you’re considering the audience, message, messenger, timing, and method.

Step 5: Manage the plan.

Planning is a fluid, continuous process, not set in stone. Once the plan launches, you should continuously assess the project (progress, performance, quality, problems) and people (are they committed, willing, able?) at checkpoints you set. Adapt and modify budget, schedule, activities, the team—and yourself—as needed.

It’s also smart to create a contingency plan so you have other options if your plan doesn’t meet expectations. What would you do if x, y, or z happened? How could you get things back on track and reach your goal? If you think you don’t have time to contingency plan, you’re wrong: You don’t have time not to contingency plan!

Eyes on the prize

Effective planning is one of the “Dynamite Dozen” skills that characterize the best managers—as well as being an important life skill. What goals do you have for yourself, your team, or your business? Make a plan to make them reality.

We work with individuals and teams every day to master essential management skills like effective planning. See how we can help.

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