A goal is not a plan

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Holidays aside, it should be relatively quiet around the office this time of year. After spending so much time in the Performance Zone all year, it’s time to get back into the Learning Zone. Take a step back and ask yourself and your team, “What went well, what didn’t go as planned and what could we do better next year?” (For more about the difference between the Performance Zone and the Learning Zone, see my article What CPAs Can Learn from Beyoncé.)

Knowing where you are now and where you want to go is a start. But without having a defined plan in place—the steps you need to go to get from Point A to Point B—all you have is a dream.

Setting a goal doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have a plan

Renowned venture capitalist Peter Thiel likes to ask businesses, "How can you achieve your 10-year plan in the next six months?" 

Impossible, you say? When I first heard that about Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and Palantir, it upset me too. I didn’t think it was humanly possible to accomplish a 10-year goal in only six months. But then I realized why: it was because I didn’t have a real plan, one that was crystal clear in my mind.

Achieving a goal in one-twentieth of the time you originally thought it would take is not going to be easy. But if you look at your plan closely enough, you will probably find areas where you could be clearer. You will probably find areas in which you could eliminate some ambiguity, accelerate some deadlines, speed up the learning curve and squeeze out some operational inefficiency. If you don’t know exactly what you need to be doing and when, and if you don’t have time blocked in your calendar to do those things, then you might as well scratch that goal from your list—it’s not going to happen.

Goals and plans are not synonymous

A goal is an end measure. For instance, “Within two years, we want to be the leading accounting firm specializing in cost-segregation in our geographic area.” Or, “We want to be at X dollars in revenue by the end of fiscal 2019.” That’s great, but how are you going to accomplish those aspirations? What’s your plan to get there? Who is going to do what, and by when? Who’s accountable?

OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) are two techniques for keeping your plan on track. There are many others. The key is not only to have a big, tangible goal in mind, but to have a timetable for reaching it and to have people accountable for making sure each step of the way is kept on track.

For example, let’s say your firm’s goal is to have a successful rollout of a new client portal within the next 90 days. That’s a great goal, but not if the timing isn’t right. You wouldn’t want to roll out the portal in Q3. That’s generally not when you have a lot of client contact and it’s not relevant to the client experience. However, the rollout is a viable goal if you want to get started on January 1. That’s when you’d normally start talking to clients leading up to tax season.

So, if rolling out the client portal is the goal, then right under that line item you have to ask yourself and your team: “What does a successful rollout look like?” Does success mean a certain level of adoption among clients? Does it mean the pre-built folders are built out? Does it mean the portal has been tested six times with no defects? Everyone on your leadership team has to be on the same page about what constitutes success. Be clear.

An annual goal has to be broken out into 90-day incremental goals (my firm calls those increments “rocks”). Where do we need to be in 12 months? Where do we need to be mid-year? Where do we need to be in 90 days? Now ask yourself, “Based on where we need to be in 90 days, what are the activities that need to be done in the next three months that are going to set us up for success? What’s our scorecard? How do we know if we’re on track? What are potential roadblocks? What are the issues we’re running into and how do we get those issues solved?”

That’s the crux of planning. Taking a goal and stripping it down to its core elements—time-based activities that you’re doing on an ongoing basis, activities that are in your calendar with specific deadlines and specific owners assigned to each activity. To be clear, this process of deconstructing a goal into a specific, time-bound action plan takes time and effort. If you’re not committed to making this time investment, then it’s unlikely you’ll hit any of your goals.

Why do so many New Year’s resolutions fail (both personal and business)?

As many of you know, January is the busiest time of the year at most gyms. People make promises to themselves to get into shape as soon as their holiday gorging and slacking off is over. Guess what the emptiest month of the year is at most gyms? February. That’s when most of the newbies who weren’t properly committed to their goals stop going. For many of them, “getting in shape” is aspirational. It’s something that sounded cool at the time. It’s not a commitment or a regular habit for them. Those people didn’t have a strong enough "why."

I don’t go to the gym to look like a body builder; that’s not a very strong "why." I have young children at home. I want the energy to keep up with them and they want their dad to be strong. I want to be the man that my children think I am. That’s a very powerful "why" and that’s what keeps me committed to going to the gym consistently.

Bottom line: If you don’t have a strong "why," then the "how" isn’t going to work.

Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon series, once said, “Goals are for losers; systems are for winners.” What Adams meant is that if you just set random goals, you’re not setting yourself up to win. You need to figure out a system that sets you up for success. Big difference!

James Clear, author of the new book Atomic Habits, writes extensively about how to form good habits, how to break bad habits and how to develop small behaviors that lead to huge positive results. Clear is also a big advocate of “habit stacking”—pairing a new habit with an existing one. For example: As soon as I get home from work and take off my work shoes, I immediately change into my workout clothes. It’s gotten to the point that I feel uncomfortable coming home and not putting on my gym clothes ASAP. Does putting on my gym clothes guarantee I’m heading to the gym? Nope, but it makes me feel ridiculous if I decide to bail out on my commitment.

Again, the reason why habit stacking works so well is because your current habits are already built into your brain rather than having to start completely from scratch. Once you have mastered this basic structure of habit stacking, Clear says you can begin to create larger stacks.

In order to be more productive and successful, you should be looking for someone to be accountable to. Who are you reporting to? That’s not the same as having a boss. If you’re not looking to be held accountable, that essentially means you’re not expecting to get something done. You’re already looking for an out.

For more about planning and radical transparency, see my Accounting Today article Idea Meritocracy for CPAs.

If you’re really committed to getting something done by a specific time—say, rolling out the new client portal in 90 days, or opening a new office by mid-year—then you have to burn the boats and behave as though there is no Plan B. What will you do, by when, and to whom are you accountable?

Committing to specific actions will set you up for success in 2019 and beyond.

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