Melanie Nelson

President at MRN Consulting

A Plan Is Better Than Luck

Full full human chess in 1924  st. petersburg  russia.   imgur

Image: chess game in St. Petersburg, Russia, 1924

One of the best, and most overlooked, transferable skills that people pick up during their doctoral training is the ability to take a somewhat fuzzy goal — like a research question — and turn it into a concrete plan. As a Ph.D., you almost certainly know how to do that, even if you can’t explain how.

And yet, many academics stumble when they have to take charge of a team of people or navigate a new role that balances research against other, equally important work. To do either of those things well, you need to be able to evaluate a collection of long-term goals and formulate a strategy for achieving them. That’s a crucial skill — whether you are setting up your own research program or moving into a nonfaculty role in or out of academia. It is a crucial skill for anyone who wants to be in charge of anything, really, because one of the fundamental tasks that comes with being “in charge” is setting a strategy for accomplishing long-term goals.

If you work at a company, there probably will be processes in place to guide you, although they will be far from perfect. If you remain in academia or go into some form of independent work, you are much less likely to have a framework for how to formulate strategy. Developing your work strategy is a deeply personal undertaking, and there are many different ways to do it. However, it is often helpful to have a concrete example from which to start. In that spirit, I offer the process I use and recommend to clients who are struggling with this transition.

Step No. 1: Define the scope of each long-term aim. You have an idea for something substantial that you’d like to get done. Add as many details to that goal as you can. What, precisely, are you trying to accomplish? You’ll often hear that you should aim for an outcome, and not the process. I agree to a certain extent, but I find it is most useful to make my aim something I can control. So, rather than “write a New York Times best seller,” you might have a goal of “write and promote a high-quality book for the general market.” You cannot control whether enough people buy your book to make it a best seller by one newspaper’s somewhat opaque and arbitrary definition. You can control whether you produce a book that has the qualities of a best seller and promote it well.

If your aim involves research, you cannot predict the details of the outcome. If you could, there would be little point in doing the research. Is there, instead, a model you want your research data to allow you to produce? Or some topic you think you should better understand once you have achieved your aim? Use the answers to those questions to help you understand the scope of your research goal.

Likewise, think about what you’ll exclude from your aim. Maybe you don’t want to write a book for mass-market readers. Maybe you want to write a book for an academic audience, and do a little cross-over marketing. If your aims are research-based, think about whether there is any aspect of the larger topic that you’re not going to include in your research. What is the specific niche you want to own?

Finally, how will you know when you’ve succeeded? Avoid success markers that look a lot like winning a lottery. Aiming for a certain amount of book sales is great, because once you start strategizing, you will be able to identify concrete steps you can take to boost sales. Aiming to be an Oprah Book Club pick is a bad idea, because unless you know someone who knows Ms. Winfrey personally, you can do next to nothing to make this happen.

Step. No. 2: Identify and document concrete goals for the next 12 months. Your long-term goal is likely to be a multiyear undertaking. But it’s difficult to use that somewhat fuzzy goal to guide your daily work. Furthermore, if achieving your aims requires hiring staff, you’ll need to know when to hire which types of people. Therefore, before you jump to the nitty-gritty details of specific project plans, take some time to think about what you should do this year to advance your long-term goal(s).

This step can be hard for people to grasp. They wonder, “Didn’t I already set ‘the goal’ in Step No. 1? Why do I need to break it down further?” The answer: So that you can figure out the best way to achieve the aim. In short, this is where you move from thinking “I’d like to achieve this” to having an actual strategy.

Sometimes, your short-term goals will be obvious. If your aim is to understand a particular cellular-signaling pathway, it might be obvious that you need to start by identifying and purifying the components of that pathway. (Or it might not: Maybe you have a different idea for how best to characterize the pathway.) And sometimes, concrete goals will be less clear. If your aim is to build a speaking practice, you will need to consider how best to go about that. Will you work to build a more public profile first, and if so how? How will you let people know that they can hire you as a speaker? What topics will you speak about, and how will you establish your credibility as an expert on those topics?

This step is particularly important if achieving your ultimate aim involves a fair amount of luck. In that case, your strategy should include multiple ways to approach the aim, and a mechanism to keep your operation functioning while you make these attempts. For instance, if your success marker is publishing a paper in Science, Nature, or Cell, you need to make sure your strategy includes not just performing research that might produce a result worthy of one of those journals, but a plan to produce enough other research to keep your lab funded while you work on your high-risk, high-reward project.

Step No. 3: Sketch out how to accomplish this year’s short-term goals. Now we’re moving into territory that might feel more familiar. This step is very similar to what you probably did, consciously or not, to move from a research question to a plan for your dissertation. In fact, if you’re continuing to work in a research-based role, you might be able to use exactly the same methods for formulating your plan as you used during your doctoral research.

However, if your new role requires you to balance multiple projects, if you’re moving from being the person who does the research to being the person who manages people doing the research, or even if you are staying a hands-on researcher but adding new responsibilities (such as teaching), you might find it useful to add more structure to your planning process. This step and the following ones suggest such a structure.

So write a list of the things you’ll need to do to accomplish this year’s short-term goals. At this point, do not worry about how these things depend on each other or what staffing and other resources you’ll need. Just try to assemble a complete list of what needs to be done. The items on this list are still fairly high-level things that probably take weeks, if not months, to complete. For instance, if your goal was to complete the research for a new book, the items on your list might reflect specific research questions to pursue or specific scholars whose work you need to fully understand.

Step No. 4: Organize a quarterly calendar. This is another strategizing step. Look at the list of things that need to get done this year, and sort them into quarters. As you assign them to specific time periods during the year, think about which things are highest priority. Also think about which things have the highest risk of failing. It is a good practice to try to do the highest-risk things earlier in the year, because that gives you time to adjust your plans if they fail. If there are other demands on your time (such as teaching), consider them as you think about how many tasks you can accomplish in a given quarter. If there are large deadlines (such as for grant proposals), factor those in, too.

Step No. 5: Make specific plans for the projects you’ve assigned to the very next quarter. Here is where you use your favorite project-planning methods. Different people prefer different techniques. Use whatever method works for you, but be open to changing your methods as the type of work you do changes.

I personally like to use a mix of modified kanban boards and old-fashioned work-breakdown structures. I create a work-breakdown structure when the project has a lot of internal interdependencies, particularly if it includes hard deadlines. I use a system of modified kanban boards for less rigidly scheduled projects, culminating in a physical kanban board that represents my current work. I add cards to that board to represent tasks from the scheduled projects as well so that I don’t accidentally plan too much work for a given time period.

If I have a lot of deadlines, or am just worried that I might be attempting to cram more work into a quarter than is feasible, I will map my milestones out on a calendar, and then iterate my work plans until the resulting calendar doesn’t imply that I am going to miraculously triple my usual productivity.

The details of my own planning process aren’t important here — except to provide an example of the type of work that happens as you turn your strategy into plans for completing specific projects. What is important is that you plan your work in some way and allow what you learn in this detailed planning step to inform your strategy. Sometimes, your detailed plans will make it clear that you have been overly ambitious in earlier steps. That’s OK. Just go back and update your ideas in the earlier steps until you produce a plan that seems feasible.

Step No. 6: Hold yourself accountable. Once you’ve produced a set of plans that you believe are feasible, capture them in some online or physical form. Then use it to guide your decisions about what work to do on any given day. If you find your plans were unrealistic, learn from that and improve your planning process.

It is not easy to devise a strategy that will challenge you to achieve great things but not overwhelm you or lead you to promise more than you can possibly hope to deliver. It is well worth the effort, though, because a good strategy is often the difference between a nice idea and one that truly makes a difference in the world. The best way to learn how to make a good strategy is by trying, and then noticing where your plans did not work. The pay off is that you will find yourself accomplishing more things that really matter to your long-term aims, with less stress.

You will almost certainly deviate from your plans. That is not a sign of failure. The goal of this entire exercise was not to produce a rigid plan that you must follow at all costs, but to give you more insight into your long-term goals and a realistic strategy for attaining them. As circumstances change, go ahead and change your plans. You have your success criteria to help you determine whether you are on track to achieve what really matters — or not.

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