In examining ideas on action planning for simple or small tasks, I’ve posted recently on how to manage the plans using Outlook and Project in conjunction with mind mapping software.  To draw this to a conclusion here are some ideas for using Word and Excel as well as the inbuilt timeline view within some mind mapping software (in this case MindView).

As before, the assumption is a quick planning exercise has identified what needs to be done and the tasks to achieve it.  These ideas have been captured, reviewed and refined as a map using software such as MindView.

Replace Garden Shed

Many people are comfortable working with simple lists.  The first thing we can do with a mind map entered into a mind mapping application is to use the outline view to create a simple list.

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If the preference is to work with the list using MS Office, the map or outline may be exported to Word.  The advanced export dialogue will allow you to select which task attributes to export, such as start and end dates and completion status.

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An option many people may prefer is to export to Excel.

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A final option, and perhaps one with a more unusual and appealing visual style, is to use the inbuilt timeline view.  This gives a good feel for the loading of tasks over time and is often received better by those not familiar or comfortable working with Gantt charts.

 

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The trick with timelines views is to filter or focus on just a few tasks at a time or the timeline gets to busy.  here the example just presents the key information for the garden shed project – the main delivery steps.  Sharing a timeline view is easily done using a PDF export or print.

 

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Previously, in Managing a Simple Plan, I have illustrated how a simple plan might be managed using MS Outlook and mind mapping software (MindView).  Using the same starting point the plan might also be managed using a Gantt chart.

Making a Plan

As before, follow the 5 step procedure to create a plan. 

 

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In this instance I’ll use the plan referred to previously for replacing my garden shed. 

The initial ideas for the plan are added to the MindView template and refined until the list of steps is satisfactory. 

Add dates to each step to be included in the plan.

 

To get a Gantt view of the plan using MindView is simplicity itself –  from the “View” menu, select the “Gantt” view.

Gantt

All the elements of the plan are listed as tasks in the MindView Gantt view.  The timeline is created automatically from the dates entered previously, creating the typical Gantt view of tasks over time.

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If you go on to manage the plan using MindView you can update the tasks with progress and status or you can edit tasks and add new ones.  MindView also includes a project reports function which creates a snapshot of the project for viewing in a browser.

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Or if you prefer you can export the plan to MS Project.

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Managing a Simple Plan

April 11, 2011

In the last post, I introduced a basic planning procedure to help ensure simple tasks are achieved efficiently and with minimal prevarication (see A Moment’s Reflection Before Action). 

Making a Plan

In that post I mentioned briefly the possibility of adding the steps as tasks in Outlook, should this be your preferred way of managing things.  In this post I wanted to demonstrate how this might be done using mind mapping software, such as MindView.

The planning procedure suggests a very simple template, with three main ideas to set up as main branches: Aim or Goal; Steps; Obstacles.

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Working first with the “Aim or Goal”, add ideas to the template.  Make a list of the the things you think need to be done to achieve the aim or goal – add these to the “Steps” branch.

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Also make a list of the possible obstacles and what steps might be taken to overcome them – add steps from this list to your main list of steps where there is a high certainty that they will need to be done (for instance, in the example of “Replace Garden Shed”, review of the obstacles identifies that having asked my brother for help I will need to remind him because he is a forgetful soul – this is shown on the map by the red link).

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Next add dates for when you expect to start and complete the steps (in MindView open the “Task/Timeline Info” tab and set “Show Branch Data” to “on”).

To export the steps to Outlook as tasks is easy.  First set the MindView map to show only the sub-branches of the “Steps” branch (use “Branch Focus”) – these are the items that you want to become tasks in Outlook. 

Then follow the MindView menu options for Export to Outlook.

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To keep the resulting task list separate and clearly identifiable from other Outlook tasks, create a new task folder in Outlook to receive the exported items from MindView. If it helps, you might want to think of the goal and the steps you’ve planned as a simple project, with its own folder.

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Complete the export and find the task folder in Outlook.  Typically the tasks are displayed as detailed list, sorted in date order.

Replace Garden Shed Plan export outlook task list

Alternatively, the list can be displayed in Outlook using a timeline view.

Replace Garden Shed Plan export outlook timeline

Either way you are now ready to begin managing your simple project using Outlook.  You can mark tasks as complete as you go.

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Should you wish, you might want to retain the original planning view created in MindView but with updates from Outlook as progress is made, such as when tasks are completed.  You can do this by synchronising the MindView map with Outlook whenever you want an update.  Follow the export options in MindView to Outlook, this time selecting “Synchronise Tasks” instead of “Export as New Tasks”.

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Set the synchronise options to pick up the changes from Outlook.

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Complete the operation and the MindView tasks will be updated.  In this example, two tasks were marked as complete in Outlook.  This is now reflected in the MindView map – in this example the original plan view has been filtered to show only completed tasks.

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Something needs to be done.  Maybe a report needs writing or maybe you need to book a holiday.  Whatever it is, a moment’s reflection before diving into the action might help you achieve whatever needs doing more efficiently or with less prevarication.

When the need for a simple task first arises, it is sometimes easy to dive straight in.  However after some hard work you might realise that you’ve taken a wrong direction, misunderstood the brief or just gone off at half cock.  In other situations it can happen that you start thinking about what the the finished article might be, what it might look like, where you might go or what people might think of what you’ve produced.  Before you have even started on the task, its apparent difficulties or the effort that might be involved start to grow in your mind.  The task then seems more complicated, risky or time consuming than at first thought and procrastination creeps in.

To help you focus its worth taking just a few minutes to devise a simple plan.  This can be broken down into five steps:

  • Decide the aim or goal – what needs to be achieved
  • List the small steps you will take to achieve the goal
  • List the obstacles that might get in your way
  • Make a mini-plan of the small steps you will take to overcome each obstacle
  • Consolidate all the small steps into a simple list and review the list.

Then do the first actions now.  Make a start – you might not be able to book that holiday right away but you can take the first steps towards it – doing some research; deciding a budget; finding out where everyone wants to go; checking prices and so on.

Making a PlanThe mind map summary (created using MindView) includes additional focus questions to prompt you and help you stay focussed.

The plan you produce can be as simple as list of things to do with some idea of the order in which to do them.  Alternatively, you might want or need to set some dates against each item or note to whom you might delegate a step.  Depending on what you come up with, you might set the steps as tasks in Outlook, for instance, or go even further and create a small Gantt chart or timeline.

You might not be able to identify everything you need to do at the first attempt but you will have enough to encourage you to make a start.  Ideas for additional steps will arise naturally as you execute your simple plan.

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Dealing with the Unexpected

November 16, 2010

Planning to Resolve a Problem, Issue or Crisis

When an unexpected event occurs – a problem, an issue or a crisis – you may not always have a ready made contingency plan available to deal with it. However if you follow a standard planning procedure you may increase your chances of a speedy resolution.

When to Use a Task Planning Procedure

When a problem, issue or crisis requiring an urgent response arises – and where a straightforward response isn’t appropriate – you will need to plan. The task to resolve the situation might be given to you by your manager or their manager or it may be one you have identified yourself. The time available to achieve the outcome is limited or is subject to a fixed and imminent deadline. The event is one either not normally or not currently covered by your business contingency plan. However, you need a plan with which to brief and supervise a team – and a plan will also help reassure management and stakeholders that you are in control of the situation and its resolution.

How to Use the Task Planning Procedure

Describing this thought process as a “procedure” might suggest a lengthy process that you may feel you don’t have time for. Remember, even in the most urgent of situations time spent on review, analysis and planning will help ensure a more efficient, effective and flexible response. The time you spend planning depends on the time and information you have available and the scope and scale of the problem. If you only have 10 minutes, then run through the procedure in our head and prepare a short verbal briefing. If you have longer, make notes (use the template – see below) and collect more information to help your decision making.

A word of caution – beware collecting too much information or waiting for additional information – there will come a point where there is so much information available it will actually begin to hinder decision making. Know when it is time to act – trust your instincts.

The Key Steps

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Further detail around each of these headings is provided in the accompanying mind map – right click and then “Save” here for the MindView map.

When giving the team briefing

A face-face, verbal briefing is always best. If appropriate and there is time, issue a summary of the objective, the key elements of the plan, the key roles and contact details.

Ensure delegated actions are understood by staff, together with the overall objective and intent. Ensure everyone knows how progress is to be reported and when/where review checkpoints are. Ensure everyone knows what the communication channels are. Assign someone to manage communications with key people outside the immediate response team.

Key Points

This kind of crisis planning assumes that time is critical, that deadlines must be met – that an unusual situation requires and unusual response. Notice that no time is wasted searching for how and why the situation has arisen, other than where this knowledge may help a speedy resolution. The focus is entirely on planning and implementing a solution. Anyone who wants to spend time debating how this could have happened or what it might mean is not engaged with the solution – encourage to them to leave analysis of the cause till afterwards. Fix the situation first then review how it could have happened and how it might be prevented.

Full information may not be available to support decisions. Time spent waiting until more information is available may be time when more cost, upset and damage is incurred. In unplanned situations, dealing with uncertainty is a key management skill. Make whatever assumptions are needed and act based on these. Be prepared to change the course of action as new information comes to light or your assumptions change.

Don’t plan in too much detail – you need to think each option through and know what you will do but you don’t need to break the task down into minute detail, leave that to your team. Your plan establishes the goals for the task. The course of action you choose and initiate provides the direction your staff need to get things done. The fallback or contingency plans identify what people will do if anticipated problems actually occur. The course of action may be changed by you if new information changes your assumptions, if new problems arise or if opportunities for a speedier or more effective resolution present themselves.

Don’t forget your communications – with the staff involved in executing the plan and with your management and other identified stakeholders. Delegate someone to organise, communicate and chase attendees for review checkpoint meetings or telephone conferences.

When It’s All Over

Update everyone and send congratulations and thanks.

Update management and key stakeholders – this time include those left out until now as not critical, now is the time to bring them up to date.

Schedule an "after action" review of the plan, its implementation and success. Document what you would do if the event or crisis were to occur again. Identify any actions needed to strengthen capability for the future. This is about improving your response when this or similar situations arise.

Schedule a review to examine how the situation arose and how it might be prevented or the risks mitigated in future. This is about preventing the same situation arising again.

image A planning template or aide memoire was created from the MindView map by exporting it to Excel.  It’s available as a PDF file by clicking here.

 

 

The map is also available as a MindManager file from either Biggerplate or There’s a Map for That.

Following on from the previous Strategy Into Action post, here is a worked example to illustrate the process in a little more detail.

The process is broken down into two major stages:image

 

 

Action Framework – sets the overall strategic aim and the subsidiary aims that will provide focus and direction (“Focused Directions”). It also considers the obstacles that may be encountered and allows for the end situation to be described to help recognise success when it is achieved – this is called the "Practical Vision".

Action Timetable – the critical part for getting things moving. Taking the information from the Action Framework, this stage identifies owners for the Focused Directions. Actions are identified and assessed against the Focused Directions to confirm they are worth doing and will contribute to the overall strategy. Confirmed actions are also scheduled against a simple timetable: now; in the next 3 months; 6 months; 9 months; next year. A simple schedule of high level actions is produced.

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In the original post, 5 questions were introduced, which if answered, would lead to an a first pass strategy and action plan. 

Responses to questions 1-4 may be structured using the Action Framework stage. Answering question 5 provides the list of actions that are defined further in the Action Framework stage.

 

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imageIn the example here, managers have considered what is needed for the future of their organisation’s Internet service and arrived at the Action Framework illustrated.

  

Next, they moved to the Action Timetable stage and listed and defined actions, paying particular attention to the "obstacles" they need to overcome and the things they need to do to achieve the "practical vision".

   

 

imageThe actions have been mapped to the relevant "direction" – the directions now providing useful streams of activity. Each of these was assigned an owner for delivery.

The actions were also scheduled against the broad timetable: now; next 3 months; and so on.

       

 

 

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As you can see from the illustrations, all of this was captured and refined using a software tool, in this case MindView Business Edition from MatchWare. Using a tool such as this an outline report of the work can be created by exporting the analysis and planning to MS Word.

   

 

 

To better understand the schedule of actions we can use MindView to create either a timeline view or a Gantt view. These provide a better view of what is going to be done when. Additional work may amend the schedule and break down the actions into more detailed tasks. This may be done using the Gantt feature of the software or the data may be exported to MS Project.

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Strategy Into Action

September 3, 2010

Everyone will tell you that you need a strategy for your business or department – and they are right.  Whether it is “grand” strategy that establishes the direction for your business overall or whether it is a “tactical” strategy designed to effect more specific changes, it’s a good idea to know where you are going and what it will look like when you arrive.

But many strategies fail to deliver.  There are many reasons for this – one being a failure to turn the big ideas into actions that people can work on.  Sometimes there is a plan but it is too grand and too long in the preparation – by the time the actions actually get started the world has changed and they plan doesn’t seem relevant any more.  Or there is a strategy but no clear idea of the directions to follow, no one is responsible and and no obvious place to start.  The momentum generated by the “strategic” thinking soon dissipates.

With just 5 questions it is possible in the space of a few hours to generate a robust action plan that will get you moving on achieving your strategy.  You can do this on your own or with your team, in a meeting or workshop, and with or without a facilitator.

Question 1     What is our focus?

Question 2     What are the key directions we should take?

Question 3     What are the obstacles that are blocking us?

Question 4     What to do to remove the obstacles and achieve what we want?

Question 5     What are the immediate, practical actions we can take?

The focus question defines the overall goal and scope – you might already know the answer and just need to restate it.  The key directions are the themes or areas that if followed will lead to the goal.  The obstacles are the constraints, the blockers that will defeat the plan if not addressed – some of the actions will be focussed on overcoming these.  Other actions will address new things that need to be created or delivered.  Consideration of these should be focussed on short term or very short term timescales – what can we do today, tomorrow, this week, this month that get us following the key directions.  Medium and longer term actions can be logged but will most likely be consider later.  Assign ownership to the key themes and the actions.  Document it all – preferably on a single sheet of paper (see the example). Get started.

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In just a few hours you have an action plan.  It won’t be perfect nor will it be complete.  But it will provide a basis on which to move forward.  New or missing actions can be added as each action is completed.  Keep the plan alive, review it regularly, keep adding the next actions that come to mind.

Acknowledgement: The format of the action plan was suggested by examples using the ToP Participatory Strategic Planning method designed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA).