Select Successful Strategies:
Tools to Set You on a Productive Path
“Action expresses priorities.”
Designing a business plan for your life is all about setting you up to live with integrity—so that what you do is a true reflection of who you are and what you value. In this step, you will select the strategies that best serve your priorities and are most likely to bring your glowing vision to life. You will get very specific about how you will accomplish those objectives. Sometimes the approach is fairly obvious—it’s almost a given. If your goal is to have Sunday brunch with the family every week, you probably don’t have to create overwrought plans to do that. You all love pancakes and orange juice and sleeping in. So you decide to meet at the table by eleven, agree to rotate cooking and grocery shopping duties, and you’re pretty much there. For more complex goals, however, such as switching careers or pursuing a promotion, you will need a more sophisticated plan. In this section, you will sift through your potential strategies and choose those that are most likely to get you the results you desire.
To make wise choices, you will need to size up the alternatives and select the strategy that is most feasible and likely to work. And if previous efforts you’ve made to accomplish a goal have fallen short, you’ll want to examine those as well, so you learn from your experiences and pick a more rewarding path. Bringing a vision to life takes skill. This chapter offers a collection of tools you can use to evaluate your options, whether you seek to embark on a major life change or to simply make each day joyful and productive.
Are you finding yourself questioning what’s a goal and what’s a strategy? Wondering about the difference between priorities and objectives? Strategies and tactics? Don’t worry about the terminology. Some business types spend a lot of time arguing over the lingo used to describe the strategic planning process. The names are not important. What matters is that you know what you want to do and how you will do it. You set goals and priorities so you are clear about what is most important for you to accomplish. This chapter is devoted to figuring out how you will get it done.
Here’s one example of how people get tied up in knots. Say you’ve set a goal to lose ten pounds. Your strategy—the way you’re going to accomplish that goal—is to cut refined sugar out of your diet and start an exercise program. Your exercise program could be accomplished with any number of tactics: join a gym, go for daily walks, ride a bike, and on and on. This chapter will help you decide which approach to the exercise program is most likely to lead you to success with your goal of losing weight.
Another person, however, might call starting an exercise program her goal. Maybe that contributes to a larger goal, such as “getting healthy.” Or maybe exercise is the goal. That person will still need to get specific about how she is going to initiate her fitness regimen. So, one person may consider exercising a goal while the other thinks of it as a strategy to achieve a different goal. For one, the different exercise options are tactics while the other considers them strategies. Does it really matter?
For our purposes, we will use the term “strategy” to describe how you will accomplish something. Generally speaking, strategies are the general approach you will take and tactics are the smaller steps that contribute to the execution of a given strategy. There, you have the definitions if that helps you.
Make Sure Your List Is Complete
Before launching into action, let’s be sure you are looking at the whole picture. Pull out your notebook. Review your mission and vision statements, both for inspiration and to ensure you’ve covered all your bases. Do you have all your critical success factors in place or a strategy to secure them?
Reviewing your critical success factors can serve as a good starting point for developing a winning strategy. Dr. Vicki Jackson is the director of Palliative Care at Massachusetts General Hospital and she successfully employed this technique as we worked on her department’s strategic plan. To zero in on their priorities, we started with a look at their critical success factors. Vicki knows that the quality of the service she can provide is entirely dependent on employing the best practitioners in this young field, and she’s been extraordinarily successful in this regard. A quality staff is her most essential success factor, so recruiting, retaining, and developing the best of the best is one of her top goals.
Her SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis showed her what she already knew. One of her division’s greatest strengths is her highly dedicated and skilled multidisciplinary team of professionals. She knows not to take this extraordinary asset for granted as her profession faces serious threats nationally. First, the intense nature of their work with gravely ill patients, while richly rewarding, can be emotionally draining. Burnout is a well-known occupational hazard. Furthermore, there is an undersupply of qualified practitioners because the field is so new, so replacing her staff would not be a simple undertaking. Vicki intuitively understands that nurturing her clinicians’ career growth and general well-being is essential to meeting her retention goal. As director, it is her responsibility to steward her resources wisely. She considers paying attention to how her people think and feel to be essential to the team’s collective responsibility for managing their energy and emotions. This isn’t a luxury in the palliative care field. It’s a pragmatic necessity.
She also knows from experience that there is no “one size fits all” prescription for keeping everyone on the staff energized, so it is essential for her to offer an array of choices to address everyone’s needs. Her approach, fittingly, was to appoint a task force led by two clinicians to develop a menu of renewal options. She calls this their sustainability strategy. While she respects the personal nature of this undertaking and doesn’t dictate a single approach, she does insist that everyone on her team engage in some form of self-care to stave off burnout.
As you can see from this example, a significant part of the MGH palliative care strategy emerged directly from a review of the department’s critical success factors, taking into account their strengths and weakness and evaluating the opportunities and threats presented by the state of their profession on the national level. As you review your strategic options, you will benefit from doing a similar analysis for yourself.
So Much to Do, So Little Time
You have a full life and are busy, busy. Most of what you’re doing may even be pretty rewarding. As if that’s not enough, you’ve just written down a closetful of goals to do even more. Your cup runneth over, but so doth your plate. There is far more on your list than you can possibly do. So how do you choose? In the last chapter, you reviewed your calendar and did some work to clear out the clutter. Now you can employ some new tools to judiciously determine what you add back to your schedule so that everything on it serves your goals and priorities.
Since you want your efforts to be both efficient and effective, this would be a good time to review your SWOT analysis. You need to ensure that your strategies leverage your strengths and opportunities, and that you have plans to address any potential weaknesses or threats. Remember not to get down on yourself for anything you’ve identified as a weakness. We all have them. Simple acceptance of the facts will allow you to think calmly about how to fill in for what you lack. From a resource-management perspective, you are far better off leveraging your strengths than trying to get up to speed to do everything yourself. If you happen to be lousy at math, all the math training in the world is likely to get you to adequate at best. And most of us are after excellent. So embrace your gifts and accept your limitations with grace and humility. Then go about finding other ways to fill in for your weaknesses if those points are necessary to achieving your goals.
Peggy and Gail are the artists who were starting Our Space, an organization to provide art therapy and other support for children affected by cancer. When they evaluated their readiness to launch this initiative, their SWOT, presented in step 4, revealed a mixed picture. They had a lot going for them, but their list of weaknesses showed that several of their critical success factors were not exactly in their wheelhouse. Their gap analysis revealed a significant lack of business know-how. They are very bright women, and certainly could have compensated for this particular weakness with courses at a local university. However, that would have taken years, and increasing their business education played neither to their strengths nor their passions. In one of their coaching sessions, we determined that there was likely a more expedient way to acquire the business acumen they needed, so we generated a list of alternate possibilities. You will see how they met this objective in the final chapter.
Admittedly, launching an entire organization is a complicated undertaking. So let’s look at someone who had more modest goals. Mark is an attorney I coached who saw mixed results when he looked at his time and emotion study. He’d recently made partner at his firm after a concerted campaign to accomplish this long-term goal. He felt great about his achievement. However, his singular focus on work over the years took its toll. He had stopped his already sporadic exercise “program” in order to put in additional time on the job and had given up any semblance of a social life. His last physical revealed that his weight and blood pressure had started to creep up. He was interested in getting married and starting a family, but had not made much effort to go on dates or participate in any activities where he might meet his future bride. He had not contributed to any community service initiatives in recent memory and didn’t feel so great about that.
A natural list maker, Mark started by brainstorming all of the ways he could fill in the gaps. Work was on a positive track, so focusing on the other three areas, he came up with something that looked like this:
Even though Mark’s time was still in pretty short supply, he decided to make daily exercise and reconnecting with friends and family immediate priorities. Being naturally very efficient in his actions, he looked for activities that could address one or more of his objectives at the same time. Running and playing tennis were two ways to improve his fitness that he could do with friends. That would help his social life as well. He’d always wanted to go trekking in Nepal. He thought joining a local hiking club might be a way to get in shape for a big trip and meet health-conscious women. He thought joining a gym might be another way to get fit and meet women. While he felt slightly less urgency to be active in community service, he looked for a convenient way to contribute to a cause that was personally meaningful and important to him. His nephew’s struggles with autism touched him deeply and he hoped to find a way to make a difference for other families coping with this condition.
Despite the efficiencies he built into his list, he was still overwhelmed at the thought of adding more to his already crowded schedule. He just didn’t know where to begin. So we used one of his coaching sessions to run his options through a series of tools and filters to zero in on the few things he could do that were most likely to achieve his larger goals of gaining better balance in his life and getting back into decent physical shape. As you will see illustrated below, when Mark used a series of tools to rank his priorities and multiply efficiencies, he began to reshape his schedule and take control of his life.
First Things First: Prioritization Tools
When the demands for your time and attention are relentless and more than you can possibly accomplish, it is very useful to impose some discipline and carefully evaluate which initiatives merit a spot at the top of your to-do list. That is a lot easier than it sounds and the time these techniques can save you by preventing you from taking on unworthy tasks is an impressive return on this investment. You will find that once you’ve used them for a while, they just become part of the way you think.
My mentor, Dr. James Cash, professor and former chairman of the MBA program at Harvard Business School, shared a metaphor years ago that has stayed with me ever since. He talked about filling a jar with rocks until they brim over the top. He asked if the jar appeared full, but then pointed out that there was still space between the rocks to fit in pebbles. Again, he asked if the jar was full, but now mentioned how sand could still fill in the small spaces between the pebbles. Finally, he noted that water could fill in the micro-gaps between the grains of sand. His point became quite clear: you could fit quite a lot into a jar if you start with the big stuff first.
If you put the trivial matters, the metaphorical sand, in your jar (schedule) first and then try to layer on the big rocks, you’ll find that you have less room for the more important matters. What sand are you allowing to keep you from getting to some of your big rocks? Make a point from now on to consciously focus on the things that matter most to you. Give them the priority they deserve when allocating your time, resources, and attention.
One of the most powerful and commonly used prioritization tools is a very simple importance/urgency matrix. First, it can be used to triage your “inbox” and help you decide whether a given task is worth doing and how quickly it should be addressed. It looks like this:
If something is urgent and important, it zooms to the top of your to-do list. If something is not important and not time sensitive, it’s likely to be busywork and doesn’t merit your time. This item should populate your not-to-do-list.
The other two quadrants require judgment. If something is urgent, but not important, you need to decide if it is worth the effort. These are likely to be interruptions. Sometimes, it is almost as quick to address them as it is to dismiss them, and it can be worth the brief effort to satisfy someone else. Other times, what someone else is asking of you would take you away from something more pressing, so you’re better off passing on it.
Important items that are not time sensitive require your attention. Often, these are activities like taking care of your health or doing some long-range planning—maybe even what you are doing right now. They often allow you to be more efficient and effective over the long term, but there’s usually no burning need to address these items immediately. Because urgency isn’t forcing you to address these matters, it’s important to proactively make time on your calendar for them. If you don’t make a point of finding the time, they will likely continue to be pushed to the back burner until they fall off the stove altogether. They may never get your attention, or worse, they will hang over your head as a nagging undone chore. Vacations and spiritual renewal activities fall into this category as well. Taking breaks to refresh and renew often does not feel urgent, but it is essential.
As a visually oriented thinker, I like to use this grid to look at how the many potential projects compare to one another as they compete for limited time. To show you how this looks, let’s go back to Mark’s list of activities. I’ve altered the grid slightly to show relative importance and urgency so that it now presents more of a continuum than absolute values.
MARK’S GOALS AND PRIORITIES
Mark assigned exercise the highest level of importance and it was very urgent as well. And while finding a wife was at least as important to him, it didn’t feel quite as urgent as getting his blood pressure under control. He found he was not terribly motivated to participate in community service activities sponsored by his law firm. Initially, he thought that would be an easy way to fulfill the obligation he felt to contribute to worthy causes. However, when he looked at that activity relative to the other things on his list, the programs his firm supported just didn’t move him. That came off his list. Just before he came to our coaching session, his sister told him about a ten-kilometer road race to raise money for an agency that provides services and advocacy for children with autism. Because training for that race would contribute to both his fitness and community service goals, that rocketed to the highest importance quadrant. And because he had to be ready to run by the predetermined date just a few weeks away, this effort took on the highest urgency.
Mark also confessed that he hoped he’d meet some single, community-minded women at the race as well, making that a potential “three-fer.” So he went right to work training for that race. He also committed to setting up some dinner dates. While not as urgent, reconnecting with friends and family was important to adding some joy back into his days. He was able to accomplish this by scheduling dinners with family and friends a little later in the evening without competing with his other priorities.
Will This Work? Feasibility Filters
Once you have prioritized your initiatives in terms of importance and time sensitivity, you’ll want to look at which strategies are most likely to help you achieve a given goal. In business, we’re trained to look at return on investment. This is usually expressed in financial terms. If you invest a hundred dollars in X, you’ll make a thousand dollars profit. For your life plan, you will look at how to invest your time and attention to get the biggest payoff for the least effort, leaving as much time as possible to invest on other endeavors. Also, you’ll need to address the fact that the more difficult something is to accomplish, the higher the risk that it might not work at all.
I’ve developed a tool I call the Risk/Reward Matrix to evaluate the difficulty of implementing certain strategies relative to their potential benefit. If something is easy to do and is going to pay huge dividends, pursuing it is a no brainer. Likewise, if something is difficult to achieve and won’t yield much benefit, it’s clear that you’d cross that off your list. Judgment again becomes a factor where something is easy to do but produces relatively little benefit. You’ll also need to decide if it’s worth investing in something that may be difficult to carry out, but comes with huge rewards if achieved.
You can use this grid to evaluate each strategy you are contemplating on its own merits or in relation to other items on your list. To maximize your chances for success, strive to choose the actions that will give you the biggest payoff for your efforts and that will play to your strengths. Remember to balance the portfolio of strategies you select to reflect the mix of priorities you set for yourself.
This grid can also be used to evaluate the relative cost/benefit of the many strategies you’re considering. Let’s look at how Mark used it to guide his thinking about developing his exercise program. You will consider the risks and benefits on a continuum and create a picture of how the initiatives rate relative to one another.
Mark’s Exercise Program Strategies
Mark’s matrix led him to decide to start running before breakfast several days a week. It was not only great exercise, all he needed was a decent weather forecast and the discipline to put on his sneakers and go. To top it off, several of his friends were runners and he had a natural gift for organizing groups. He set up a system so they could notify each other when they were heading out; that way, group members could easily meet up for company and encouragement. That met his social and health goals. Joining a gym also rose to the top of his strategies list, since it allowed him to exercise in bad weather. While there was a cost to gym membership that running did not have, and Mark had to drive to the health club, the benefit of membership was well worth the expense because it rounded out his fitness routine. Tennis also made the list because he enjoyed it so much. However, when it came to adding tennis to his schedule, Mark viewed it as a complement to running and his gym routine, because court time was expensive and required more intricate scheduling to meet friends at the club.
He took things off his list, starting with building a home gym. The ease of rolling out of bed to work out in his PJs wasn’t worth the expense of the equipment and it offered no social opportunity. He also crossed the Himalayan trekking expedition off his list. While it would be a very cool trip, the fitness benefits would be short lived and the logistics were extremely complicated. Last, Mark removed joining a hiking club from his list. His SWOT reflected that he is not a good “joiner.” He likes being in charge rather than following someone else’s itinerary. He also knew that finding the time for group outings would be difficult at best. Besides, his health club membership satisfied the physical and social benefits he would realize from joining a hiking club, and it therefore offered minimal incremental value.
Personal Power Grid
Organization consultants and psychologists Dennis Jaffe and Cynthia Scott created the final matrix I present here, called a Personal Power Grid.1 This is another excellent filter to evaluate whether your efforts will have the impact you seek. It can also help you see how your own behavior either propels you toward fulfilling your vision, stalls your progress, or pulls you off course altogether.
In this instance, mastery means taking action when you know it is going to pay off. If Mark exercises regularly and follows his nutritionist’s advice, he will lose weight. That’s mastery, and what you should be aiming for whenever possible. If Mark decides to throw up his hands and not make the effort to work out, that’s giving up. Copping out is another term for knowing what you need to do and choosing not to do it.
Taking action when you can’t control the outcome is what the authors of this grid call ceaseless striving. People pleasers take note: one of the most insidious time wasters falls in this category if you’re continually trying to win the approval of someone whom you’ve not been able to please in the past, no matter how extreme your efforts. Many of us spin our wheels at some point. How many people are yo-yo dieters? Every time they start a new regimen, they are convinced that this time it will be different. Is that really true? There’s a popular definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result. If you find yourself in this situation, take some time to figure out what’s driving your behavior and what it is costing you—especially in relation to what else you could be doing to achieve your goal.
On the other hand, if you cannot control the outcome of a situation and you choose not to act, there’s grace in letting go. This is another way to populate your not-to-do list. I can’t play foosball to save my life. Do you think I’m being modest? A four-year-old once refused to have me on his team because I’m so lousy at it. No matter how much I practice, I just can’t get good at flipping plastic footballers on a metal rod. While my ego may not like conceding a lack of talent in any area, spending any more time on that worthless pursuit would be wasted effort. Now I just play Ping-Pong with that kid. I can even beat him on that table, thank you very much.
If you have a hard time letting go, try reciting this prayer that is a common fixture in the recovery movement:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
But beware of giving up and calling it letting go. When my daughter moved up to high school, she was the only kid in her eighth grade class to be recommended for Advanced Placement Math, the highest level available. My daughter’s teacher cautioned her that she’d be mixed in with the best math students in town and that she’d have to work hard to earn a “C” grade. She agreed, and took on the challenge. Sure enough, it was a real struggle. Her new teacher sent her several notes suggesting she see him for extra help. Accustomed to breezing through her lessons unaided, she opted to keep trying on her own—until she’d had enough and told me she wanted to drop down into Honors Math. Fortunately, her teacher had told me that one of the goals of AP Math was teaching students how to learn when learning is hard. That’s something these kids had not yet experienced.
I told my daughter that if she gave AP Math everything she had and it was still too hard for her, it would be just fine for her to drop to a level where she might learn more. However, I knew she could still accept the extra help her teacher offered and there may have been other available avenues for help that she hadn’t pursued. I explained that she was learning to use new intellectual muscles, and like lifting weights for the first time, the effort can leave you feeling sore. But with perseverance, the pain goes away and eventually you can lift more and more weight. So she hung in there, got the help she needed, and did just fine. That effort moved her into the mastery quadrant on the personal power grid. Had she given up without making that extra effort, she never would have discovered the true limits of her abilities. However, if she made the effort and the math was still too hard, she could have let go of the notion she belonged in AP Math and gracefully moved into a class that was a better match for her abilities.
It is worth the effort to be sure you’re not giving up too soon or hanging on too long. That’s not always clear before you’ve given something a try. So, you can also use this grid after you’ve implemented a strategy to help you evaluate whether it’s worth continuing or whether you’d be better off trying something new.
Remember that your emotions give you important information about how well something is aligned with your values and your purpose. This is actually a very practical statement. You are much more likely to stick with something you enjoy doing. I always find visual reminders helpful for decision making, particularly because our heads often have a tendency to overrule our hearts. That’s why I created the joy meter and presented it in a toolbox for goal setting. And because we’re trying to maximize joy along with optimizing outcomes, we need to keep our joy quotient front and center in our calculus of which activities merit our attention.
Diane, the physician who was looking to raise her professional profile, kept a clear focus on her joy quotient at work. She had so thoroughly researched the issues related to prescribing narcotics in order to write a policy manual that her knowledge on the subject was on a par with any leading authority. And she so thoroughly enjoyed being a subject matter expert that she had set a goal to contribute to the national discourse on this important topic. So she came to her coaching session to explore strategies to create a platform to share her expertise on a broader stage. She also had to address the practical necessity of finding funding to support this endeavor if it meant giving up clinical time to do it.
We reviewed the options open to her. The traditional course in her discipline would be to present at national and international conferences. However, that would require a great deal of travel and would be in direct conflict with her goal of being home as much as possible for her young family. I asked her if she’d considered blogging on the topic and establishing herself as an online thought leader. This was so far out of the norm in medicine that it hadn’t even ocurred to her. But it appealed in many ways. First, she loved writing and could do it from home. Second, she’d be blazing new trails and it looked like a niche she could claim for her own.
We then turned our attention to how she would replace the salary she would lose by giving up a clinical session to free up time for this new endeavor. It was clear that the traditional funding sources were unlikely to pay her to blog. But she had come across a few resources during her research that she thought might support her if she turned some of her posts into white papers that could be used by other health-care leaders. We also discussed some foundations that might give her a grant for this worthy endeavor. Finally, she agreed to check into the feasibility of setting up a proprietary website and charging a subscription fee to access her policy suggestions. Alternatively, we discussed her posting the information free of charge, but charging for phone consultations to help hospitals and clinics with writing their own policy manuals. The consulting idea especially appealed to her as it would add significantly to her joy quotient, pushing that strategy up high in her rankings.
Rank and Select Your Strategies
Grab your notebook and closet. Review your checklist, goals, and priorities. Start with the immediate-term items and record your plan for addressing each one. For those without an obvious approach, brainstorm all of the possible strategies you can think of to accomplish your goals. It’s often useful to ask a close friend, family member, or mentor to help you with this exercise. Use the tools presented in this chapter to rank your immediate-term items according to their ease of accomplishment and likelihood to produce the desired result. Select the top candidates. (Make sure to keep the whole list so you can revisit your options if the selected approach proves less effective than predicted.) Then look at your medium- and long-range goals and make sure you have strategies in place to address those at the appropriate times. Rank your strategies and record them in your notebook.
Once you’ve selected your top strategies, put them on a shelf in your closet. Create a recurring appointment on your calendar to check your closet at regular intervals to monitor your progress and revise your approach as needed. Remember to take a moment to celebrate your successes, no matter how small. There’s great joy in making progress, so be sure to soak it all in and give yourself the credit you deserve.
Make Every Day Count
All of these tools can be adapted for everyday use. Each morning, I set aside time to set an intention for the day. I think about what I want to accomplish, how I want to feel, and anything else of importance. I use this time to zero in on my two or three “big rocks” and commit to accomplishing them before allowing any sand to distract me. This is a good time to think about your priorities in a balanced way—whatever balance means for you.