Strategic Planning and To-Do Lists… with EASE
In his September post to the Influential Voices, ASQ CEO Bill Troy discusses principles for effective strategic planning, gleaned from his years of experience with the U.S. Army. He also asks what principles we’ve found useful. Today, I’d like to share a little heuristic that Ron DuPlain and I came up with over lunch several years ago. It’s useful not only for strategic planning, but also for creating your daily or weekly to-do list, or even things like making a good grocery list.
EASE stands for Expectations, Actionability, Sustainability, and Evaluation. Here are some excerpts on EASE from a book I wrote for college students. (Note that several of the examples have to do with setting goals as a student… but these can be easily applied to any work situation.)
When you face a challenging problem, examine your scenario through the lens of EASE. Usually, you’ll find that you have a “failure” in only one or two of the EASE letters, and when you remedy that issue, all of a sudden your problem becomes easier to solve. Make sure all four elements are addressed when tackling a challenge that involves people (including you!) and obligations (such as meeting due dates, completing exams, and satisfying learning objectives).
E: Expectations. Did you ever ask your parents to borrow their car so you could go out with your friends? Chances are, unless you have the kind of parents I wished I’d had growing up, they set some expectations with you up front. When are you going to be home? Is anyone else going to be riding in the car with you? Are you going to pay for your own gas? Expectations like these help two people establish a shared situation that won’t get either of them mad or upset. You will need to set expectations with your stakeholders (in college, that primarily means your professors) and yourself about what you would want to get out of a particular class. Make sure everyone knows what the expectations are!! Check out the learning objectives that are outlined in the syllabus, and decide how you want to achieve them. (This means you need to set clear, specific, and reasonable goals.) Expectation setting ALWAYS beats surprises.
A: Actionability. Once you set your own clear goals, you need to figure out what actions to take to achieve those goals, and the actions must be actionable. I know this sounds funny, but I have seen way too many to-do lists where the doer has no hope to actually get the stuff done. Example: I had an item on my to-do list this morning that said “Tax Woman.” (What? I’m supposed to do the tax woman? OMG.) That task is not actionable, but if I’d said “Look up tax woman’s address, write and send payment” then… all of a sudden… I can get that job done. Making tasks actionable means figuring out how you are going to be an active and informed participant in achieving your goals. Figure out what you NEED for items on your to-do list to actually get done. All too often, you will have some tasks on your to-do list that you have no clue how to begin, and those items are not actionable. If you do not have all the resources, help, confidence, information, time, and skills to knock a task off your list, that task is not actionable. Don’t even try to start a task that’s not actionable, because you’ll end up sad or confused. You could potentially even start a downward spiral or fuel a pre-existing spiral with vigor and reckless abandon, if you dare to spend time on a task that’s not actionable.
S: Sustainability. Figure out how you are going to sustain the effort and the semblance of mind throughout the duration of your efforts… so that you can actually make your goal happen. Before the semester begins, figure out how you’re going to balance work life and school life so that you’re not maxing out your waking hours on the stressful pursuit of progress. (For example: if you are working at three jobs a total of 45 hours a week and taking 21 semester hours, this is not sustainable. However, you probably won’t know that until 70% of the way through the term when you catch pneumonia due to exhaustion, lose two of your three jobs, and miss so many classes and so much homework that you have to withdraw from one class and take an incomplete on another. What? You say that’s a completely unbelievable story? Answer: you’re wrong. This was my personal story the second semester of my sophomore year.)
E: Evaluation. Figure out how you’re going to measure whether you are on track or off track – and what you’re going to do as a corrective action if you find out you’re off track. Similarly, identify up front how often you are going to take a critical look at your progress. For coursework, you might want to check and see whether you’re allowing enough time to do your assignments. You may want to take a look at the grades and feedback you’re getting. Most of the time, just gauging how you feel about a situation or a problem is the most useful way to evaluate whether you’re progressing. If you feel nervous, anxious, or unsettled, chances are you’re not responding and reacting to that situation in a positive way. If you feel calm, peaceful, in control, paced, and you are enjoying yourself, chances are you are visualizing your desired goals constructively, detaching from outcomes (especially grades), and appreciating the journey towards your goals.
When you examine a strategy using EASE, oftentimes, you’ll find that you have a major failure on one or two of the four points. Simply by addressing those points, you will strengthen your ability to realize your strategy. Here are four types of “EASE failures”:
- Expectation Gap – One or more stakeholders in your situation has no expectations or ill-defined expectations, or different players have conflicting expectations which sets up an expectation gap. The solution here is to set expectations through conversations and by recording points you agree on, or alternatively, to close expectation gaps through conversation and consensus.
- Limited or No Actionability – You’ve got stuff to do and tasks defined, but you don’t have the time, resources, skills or clarity required to do them. Fix this by making sure you have everything you need to get started on each to-do list item, and you can launch into them with confidence.
- Inability to Sustain – You’ve bit off more than you can chew or are working at a pace that will exhaust your time, resources, emotions, or well-being. Scope down and set more reasonable expectations. Figure out how to work at a comfortable pace where you can make more regular, steady progress.
- Lack of Assessment or Evaluation – You’ve set expectations and have actionable tasks, but you aren’t revisiting the expectations to make sure that they remain relevant, or perhaps you’re just not doing it frequently enough. Also check your emotional barometer.
By examining your intended strategy or activity through the lens of EASE, you can identify and remove potential blocks before they become problematic. Good luck!