Get to 70%, then move

Dear Nathan,

(This post can be read alongside my post “My process is a work in progress” on www.364daychallenge.com)

Last time I wrote that, “You will have to do the work. Read the books, listen to the lectures, ask the questions, get the answers, make your plans. Then move. And keep moving.” Today I want to write to you about the planning process.

Achieving anything significant in life will require some form of planning. At a minimum, you will have to give thought to how you plan to spend the hours of your days – what you will do upon waking, what your priorities will be as the day unfolds (so you can better decide when to say “Yes” and when to say “No”), and where to focus your time and energy. Without some kind of “true north” you’re aimless. Without a plan to get to where you’re going, you’ll become easily distracted.

There are a lot of minefields along the way, but it’s with planning where you can really get stuck. I certainly have. I’ve had a tendency over the years to mistake planning for action doing something. In that and other ways planning can help you or hurt you, depending on how you think about it and how you use it.

Is planning a precursor to action or part of the action you’re taking? While this question may seem obvious, when you look at how the world operates you’ll be surprised how many people mistake planning – or worse, talking about planning – for action.

There’s something very satisfying about sitting alone or with a group of people and working your way through a plan, moving from “What are we going to do?” to “That’s a great idea!” to “How are we going to do it?” and finally to “Ok, we have a plan.”

You’ll commonly find at this moment that people like to celebrate successful plans. It’s as if having a plan is the same thing as actually doing something worth celebrating.

If you find yourself in the business world, this kind of thinking is rampant. You’ll be invited to far too many meetings where people will say smart-sounding things about noble actions that will surely lead to success. That, or similarly smart-sounding people will use their brains and wit to whittle away at other peoples’ ideas.

It’s interesting to watch. It’s also largely (though not completely if there’s a leader present who can direct that energy productively and provide the necessary occasional kick in the ass) a huge soul-sucking waste of time. A lot of people can contribute to a plan. It’s usually a small minority of people who actually do the work necessary to see the plan through to execution.

Someone once said that decision making in business is about being able to tell the difference between, “good-sounding bad ideas and bad-sounding good ideas.” When it comes to decision-making I think that’s accurate.

Ultimately, however, it’s execution that counts.

But one question that I think many people never consider is how good a plan needs to be before you can move to taking action. Act too soon as you could be walking blindly into a situation you didn’t anticipate. Wait until a plan is perfect, and act too late, your chance at building momentum behind your action is lost.

A little hint about life: no one is both smart and lucky all the time. Smarts will always run up against the limits of experience and unpredictability of life, and luck is a function of not only preparation meeting opportunity (you’ll read about that a lot in motivation books and on positive thinking websites) but also chance. Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not. It’s one of those little things that’s often beyond your control.

So what’s the answer? Well there are a lot of pieces to this puzzle, but when it comes to planning, I believe in what in the Marines we called the 70% Solution. Once you have 70% of a solution to a problem or 70% of a plan of action, unless you have all the time in the world (you mostly don’t), take action.

These days I think the tech industry has the best handle on this. Technology companies, especially software companies but it’s not limited to them, are great at producing something that’s just barely good enough for public consumption, releasing it, getting feedback, making improvements, and learning as they go.

They know that there’s no such thing as perfection. It’s always just beyond your reach. You can only keep getting better by paying attention to the results you’re getting, adjusting your course (sacred cows be damned), and continuing to move.

There is no perfect solution.  There is no bullet-proof process.

Once you get it to the point where, say, 70% of the people on your team say it’s ready, or 70% of the information you need has been gathered, etc. you need to be different than those others who want to wait until all uncertainty is gone. You need to ACT.

You won’t be right all the time. You will screw up. You will have to fix things that break and change direction. But don’t let that bother you or slow you down. Go with the flow and be keenly aware of the results you are getting. You’ll know what needs to be fixed.

A body in motion tends to stay in motion. A body at rest tends to stay at rest. A mind stuck in planning tends to do nothing else.

More on this topic when we talk about resistance.

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