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Concrete Action Plan

As you proceed through your change initiative, it's tempting to think that with a goal in mind, we can lay out a timeline and starting ticking off boxes. Unfortunately, as the Chinese proverb reminds us, the longest journey not only begins with a single step, but a series of small steps. (Step by Step is a pattern from Fearless Change that we now call Baby Steps.) During this stepwise progression, research shows that the best way to proceed is to identify an intermediate goal and write a concrete action plan for that goal. The plan should contain enough detail to allow easy implementation. At a personal level, this strategy can help us to anticipate roadblocks before we run into them. The details, called implementation intentions by researchers, often take this form:

  • When <something happens>, I will <take some concrete action>.

Usually, our focus is on the goal, short-term or long-term. We are often surprised that just having good intentions isn't enough. Here are some of my own examples.

I have a small computer that I only use for travel. I usually put it on the shelf when I'm home, and when I'm ready to leave, I try to download all the updates and get all the software working. It takes a lot of time, and things never work properly. I usually tell myself, "Next time, I've got to get started on this earlier." Finally, I realized that I was focusing on the goal without making any implementation intentions. After some soul searching, I decided on the following plan: When I get home from a trip, I will plug in my travel computer; once a week, I will update all the software and make sure my anti-virus program is happy.

  • Abstract goal: Avoid the last-minute pain of updating my travel computer.
  • Concrete action plan: When I get home from a trip, I will plug in my travel computer; once a week, I will update all the software.

Another personal example: I teach music students, and I give them this advice: Instead of saying, "I need to practice more," leave your music stand, music, and recorder in place. If you have a few minutes, practice a few scales, or work on a difficult section of the current music.

  • Abstract goal: I need to practice more.
  • Concrete action plan: Have my music stand, music, and recorder ready, so when I have a few minutes, I can practice some scales or a few hard measures.

The interesting thing about these action plans is that they begin to change the way you think about yourself. You become more organized. You become a better musician. Slowly, over time, you become the person who will fulfill your larger goals. By taking baby steps, you become more likely to make large shifts in yourself.

Of course, this approach also works in organizations. I heard a story from an agile coach who wanted to do something about controlling his anger when working with skeptical folks who offered resistance to this new approach to software development. As he talked about "those people," it was easy to see he had already put them in a box, closed the lid, and put a label on it—"stupid, ignorant, negative"—it's hard to deal with people who see the world differently. In many cases, we will never agree with them; but in teams, in organizations, we must work productively with people who see the world differently than we do. How can we overcome that disparity? The metaphor I like for using the Fear Less pattern is to pretend the other person is the wisest guru on the planet, and you have traveled a long way to hear what she has to say. Listen, ask questions to clarify your understanding of the guru's point of view, and extract as much wisdom as you can in your short time together. This technique isn't always easy, but it has powerful side-effects. By pretending that other people have a large store of wisdom, you will find that they can almost always provide some new insight into the way the world works. Watch for it. Treating others with respect also sets up a respectful connection. That's always beneficial.

  • Abstract goal: I need to find a way to deal with disagreeable people.
  • Concrete action plan: When I begin conversations with disagreeable people, I will treat them with respect, honestly try to listen to what they have to say, and learn as much as I can, realizing that I can't convince everyone to adopt my point of view.

Norm Kerth wrote a great book about project retrospectives, 3 in which he recommends starting a retrospective with a reminder of something he calls the Prime Directive: "Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand."

When I first ran into this idea, I struggled to sign up for it. I could think of too many times when I hadn't done my best, let alone worked with others who (it seemed to me) weren't doing their best. Only later, after reading research on expectation and consistency, did I realize that you can produce behavior in others by expecting it and treating them appropriately. If you treat others as though they are doing their best, they will do their best. This Pygmalion effect is especially powerful if you are the manager of the person you are trying to influence.

That's how these small, concrete action plans work. By behaving in a prescriptive way to overcome a small challenge, you start to change and your team, and your organization starts to move in the direction you want to go.

It is so tempting to tell you everything about all the new patterns! I'm holding myself back (Just Enough, another pattern from Fearless Change), so you will be interested in investigating the book, but not overwhelmed with too much information here. Mary Lynn and I both hope you find the book useful. Please let us know how the patterns work for you. Thanks for reading this article.

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