Successful entrepreneurs, students, and self-transformation experts illustrate a trait that runs in common: a distinct bias for action.
Conversely, many who fail to launch and grow companies or quite simply give up on academic or personal goals do the opposite: they fail to execute.
A hypothesis worth testing here is the way both categories of individuals plan.
The first group makes simple, actionable short-term plans, ideally rooted in quantifiable metrics that can be measured and compared over time. The simplicity of plans cuts out the noise; their inherent actionable nature is a reminder for just that: to have a bias for action. Rooting them in quantifiable and measurable metrics injects objectivity into the process.
The second group seemingly does the opposite. It plans and then plans some more. Initially, members of this group are overawed by the magnificence of their plan or underwhelmed by its pedestrian nature. Finally, after reconciling themselves, they come up with a complex document, that goes a few years out in the future, has a warm, fuzzy, inspiring aura to it but lacks any details to either get started or to measure progress. Unfortunately, many of these plans remain just that.
Here are a few specific examples to illustrate how these respective groups plan and subsequently execute in real life.
An entrepreneur proudly prepares financial projections for the next 36 months outlining with careful detail how the revenues and expenses stack up. They present it to the advisors of the company who subsequently ask them to throw these projections in the trash can. Why? For early (and an increasing number of mature companies), these financial projections tend to be quite futile given the fast-evolving and fluid nature of their economic landscape. It is next to impossible to predict how the company is going to perform 30 months from now, without having a good handle on its operations over the next 30 days. Getting wedded to a long-term plan such as this, at best becomes a theoretical experience for our entrepreneur who runs the risk of getting too removed from execution.
Our same entrepreneur, now a fast learner, comes up with financial projections for the next 6 months of the business. In doing so, they outline granular projections for the next 3 months and go on to project what months 4-6 could look like across a few scenarios. In doing so, it awakens them to possibilities that are not too far out and gives them a more assured understanding of the financial and operational levers of the business. Executing through this lens allows them to focus obsessively on the present and near future, iterate, test, and learn more, setting the firm well for the next planning cycle, with a slightly deeper understanding of the business.
A bright, young student in 11th grade lays out their ambition to pursue an MBA from a top-notch business school in the United States. In planning for the MBA program, they create a shortlist of colleges for their undergraduate degree, start thinking about their internships and identify firms for their 3-year work experience after college and before business school. They neatly put all of this together in an impressive career roadmap and present it to their advisors, who again point them to the same trash bin where our entrepreneur’s 36-month financial projections sit. In creating a 10-year career roadmap at the age of 16, these students frustrate the process of discovery, sap energy out of planning, and often compromise on the immediate task on hand: getting excellent grades, performing well outside classes, and putting together a stellar application.
Now our bright, young 16-year old, decides to modify their approach. They look at their MBA plans as a vision and instead put together a document listing out things they need to do over the next 2 semesters. In putting together this document, they identify subjects they need to work at, and gaps in the extracurricular they want to fulfill. As they go down this path, they discover more and come back to the planning board after the first 2 semesters to lay out a roadmap for the next 2. No surprises in guessing how successful they’d be in acing their college applications through this focused, iterative and thoughtful approach.
Driven by a desire to transform one’s self, an amazing individual decides to create a 12-month roadmap that entails getting up early, regular exercise, healthy eating, going caffeine-free, daily meditation heightened levels of compassion, empathy, and gratitude, and a forever kind state. Phew! Excited by this roadmap, the individual basks in glory, shares it on WhatsApp University, and in general is happy and smug thinking about their future, transformed selves. When the time comes to put this transformation in practice, they fumble. Fumble because they are overwhelmed by the sheer number of things they need to do, and don’t have a quantifiable, actionable starting point.
Our amazing individual then reflects and puts the 12-month roadmap in…yep, the same trash can. Now, instead, this individual focuses on just doing one thing right over the next 2 months: getting up at 4.00 am, every single day, no excuses. A simple plan with a clear action item, and in doing so, this act of planning, allows them to cut out all the noise. By getting up at 4.00 am, this individual builds willpower, and after 2-months, adds a caffeine-free month to their roster. More willpower accumulates, and soon they add regular exercise. And that’s how the journey of self-transformation compounds, resting on the back of increased determination from small yet quantified and measurable goals.
Plans form a basis to help us execute, and while execution at its outset might be imprecise, it eventually forms the backbone of progress. At times in our excitement to execute, we build plans that are anchored in long-standing notional outcomes, instead of rooting them in short-term processes. Taking a step back and radically simplifying our plans for the future and compressing their timeline might allow us to take the first few steps forward. And that’s when the magic begins.