4 Tips for Project Planning That Works for Your Biggest Goals

The leadership team was excited. They had just concluded a thoughtful and productive annual offsite meeting. Strategies were agreed upon and annual goals were hammered out — big, significant goals that would help the organization move forward in important ways. As they moved into the new year, everyone felt enthusiastic and inspired.

That was January of 2019. What do you think happened? Most of us are familiar with this scenario: in the following months, the urgency and immediacy of the day-to-day took over and overwhelmed the bright, shiny goals defined at the previous fall’s strategic planning meeting. By December, there was little progress to report.

“As executive coaches, we’ve seen leaders struggle to move from the concept of the big goal to the execution of the big goal,” said Maren Perry, president of Arden Coaching. “We see the frustration of a year passing with no real forward movement. In complex organizations this can happen easily.”

Now it’s January 2020. Do you have important goals you plan on accomplishing this year? What can you do differently this year? And doing something differently is a must if you want a different result. As Albert Einstein once said “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Here are four tips that will make a real difference:


1. When you identify your goals, make sure they are SMART goals — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results, Time (note: if you have already agreed on your goals for the coming year, restate them as SMART goals). Smart goals put meat on the bone. They require that the goal be clear, precise, and that there be accountability.

Perry says, “Most of us know what a SMART goal is, but how often do we actually frame an important goal that way? Too often goals are vague statements about a future state. Everyone agrees, but there may be many interpretations about what the goal really means, who is responsible for its implementation, and what a successful outcome looks like.”

Imagine a cross country car trip. The goal is to drive a team from New York City to Los Angeles in 2020. Google maps says it’s a 41 hour drive. But when will they make the trip? Who’s driving? Are they going to take two weeks and enjoy the scenery, or take turns and drive straight through? Who’s responsible for preparing the car? The goal is simply too vague. For more about SMART goals, read  Arden Coaching’s “SMART Goals are Still Smart.”

2. Establish significant project milestones so people know where they stand. What should you have accomplished, and by when? Milestones help inform leadership and the team. Establishing significant milestones also creates accountability and allows leaders to adapt and make course adjustments while there’s still time.

Again, imagine the New York – Los Angeles cross country trip. Without milestones, how would anyone know if they are ahead or behind schedule? When should they arrive in Chicago, Omaha, Denver, and ultimately, Los Angeles? Perry added, “Defining milestones — for example, by June 30, we need to be in Omaha — lets everyone know exactly what kind of progress is expected.”

It also helps to minimize the bane of all status update reports “…working on it!” With travel time of 41 hours, someone could easily, for instance on December 20, report that they are indeed still  “working on it… no problems.”

3. Define action items for the first milestone. Now, determine detailed action items that will help the team reach Milestone 1 (Cleveland!). Specific action items might include preparing the vehicle for the journey, packing, mapping out the route, picking a stop over location and reserving a room, defining a specific departure date and time, and determining who will drive for the first 4 hours.

“Generally speaking, don’t create action items for the other milestones — yet,” says Perry. “Focus on the first milestone.” There are exceptions, but typically, trying to spell out every action item from project inception to completion is overly time-consuming and there are too many uncertainties.

“A client recently decided to develop a succession plan for leadership,” Perry explained. “They defined it as a SMART goal and planned out the action items, but not too far ahead. What if an executive identified as a future leader left the company? They would need to reset and make adjustments to the succession plan. Leadership needed to make progress toward their goal, but not waste time mapping out details further and further in to the future.”

4. Add the action items required to accomplish Milestone 1 to your calendar. “I want to see action item dates and times in team member calendars,” says Perry. When will the car be checked, gassed up, and ready? When will the route be determined? Where will they need to make fuel stops? Putting action items in your calendar creates a sense of progress and increases the certainty that the team will reach Cleveland exactly when they need to.”

Adding action items to the calendar also serves as a reality check and reinforces accountability. If the car is not prepared by the due date, why? Is there a problem? If a repair is needed, can those repairs be made and still depart on the appointed day and time? For more time management tips, read Arden Coaching’s “Top Ten Time Management Tips.”

SMART goals and project planning with these essential steps will set you up for great success in 2020!

To learn more about how executive coaching can help you define and accomplish your goals, contact Arden Coaching at [email protected] or 646.684.3777.