Lose the Template, Have a Conversation: How to Successfully Plan Your Team's Next Project.

Consulting engagements, audits, really any project at hand, involve some sort of pre-set methodology or plan for you to follow.  While a predefined methodology might carry some importance, it can also be debilitating to the most key part of your project – planning.  So if satisfaction of your work engagements in some way involves templates or checklists, then this article applies to you. 

Suits & Sneaks laptop and coffee

But templates are easy, so why should I change?

 1. Templates pre-scribe the way you are to think.  

Imagine someone asked for your opinion, but instead of openly and naturally responding back to them, you had to first consult a template of possible response formats saved on your laptop, pick which one best relates to the question, then reply in that exact format.  Crazy, right?

Now imagine a totally different person asked you a totally different question, but you had to go through that same exercise again and reply in that same format.  Do you really think that person views you as adding any sort of value to their situation at hand?

You must be following me now.  Do not find a previously similar project and simply copy-paste as your basis for this one.  This does nothing for the recipient of your work or for your own professional development.

2. People are more knowledgeable than an excel template, checklist, or work program as recent as even one day ago.  

The world is changing FAST.  So before anything, talk to people!  You'll get the best information this way because not only will your conversation be real-time, the content in it will usually be forward-looking.  This is where you add value – not only caring about what “was”, but what “could be”.

3. Remember the audience, or beneficiaries, of your work.

Recall that template analogy above?  Hopefully the work you produce brings some type of tangible benefit to someone else.  This is critical – bringing a “tangible benefit to someone else” means that they can understand the purpose behind your work and realize the value it will bring to them going forward.  To start, you need to speak your audience’s language, and we all know that every person speaks and listens differently.  So you can see where a template fits in at this point.  It doesn’t.

OK I get your point, so how do I plan from a blank slate? 

 1. Learn the origin of the requested work engagement at hand.

Why did it come about, and by whom?  What were this person's biggest concerns?  What answers are THEY looking for?  I stress THEY.  Not you.  Remember this isn’t about you, this is about bringing value to someone else.  Find an answer to this next question before even moving forward – “How might this work fit into the bigger picture or goals of our company?” 

2.  Communicate these data points to your team.

Even if the answers to the above questions already exist in some unsightly Excel charting exercise, I don't care.  Do not have your team read through any type of file as their primary source to learn the engagement.  If you want to be an effective manager, you need to personally communicate the background and purpose of your projects to your entire team.  Now wait, repeat after me, “I need to personally communicate the background and purpose of my projects to my ENTIRE team.”  Why?  Because this is how value is established on your team.  You want every team member to understand how they're contributing to your greater goal, right?  You should.  

3.  Next, send forth your team to gather information, efficiently.

Allocate your planning research and information-gathering activities out to your team.  You want to develop all levels of your employees.  So rather than saving the planning process for you higher-ups, involve everyone in all key parts of your planning process. 

With this, your entire team will feel they have a purpose and can understand how they each can bring value to the engagement.  Not only is this good for morale, but does wonders for your team’s efficiency.

Great stuff.  Now I have a ton of information, but no template to document it in. 

First, please realize your average person doesn’t actually ENJOY reading through checklists, Excel templates, or pages of words. 

So, apply art.  Use tables, webs, fancy formatting.  Basically anything to grab your reader’s attention and force them to focus on key information.  Accept the reality that not every word YOU think is important will be considered important by someone else.  

So how do you identify important, key points?  Apply the “so-what” rule.  Imagine presenting to your CEO, and at the end of your spiel he looks at you and says, “so what are you telling me?”  This is where he wants you to zero in on those few critical points that have enough impact they warrant some sort of change to his organization, whether it’s now or in the future.  So cut out all the other mumbo jumbo stuff, and deliver one clear, key message that’s easy for your audience to reference, retain, and repeat.

Finally, if Mr. or Mrs. Boss needs a completeness check for comfort that everything that should’ve gone into planning actually went into planning, and a checklist is the best way to give assurance on this, then insert your checklist here.  Saving this for the end will allow your team to think openly and strategically throughout the planning process.  This is key to completing a successful project and ensuring the greatest value emanates from your team. 

Want to contribute planning ideas that work best for you?  I want to hear them so please, share them below!