Two Strategic Planning Techniques to Avoid Confusing Plans and Goals

close up photography of yellow green red and brown plastic cones on white lined surface

Having just started my new online business––I’ve been thinking a lot about two common mistakes I and others have made: confusing goals with plans and plans with goals. I want to show you what those two mistakes look like, how to recognize them, and tell you two strategic planning techniques I’ve used to handle them.

Mistaking the Goal for the Plan

This is a really common error and people make it all the time, usually without even realizing it. Here’s what it looks like: “I’m going to get rich by making a bunch of money in the stock market.” Or, “I’m going to get in shape by losing weight.” Notice what’s missing? Here’s a hint: there’s a one-word question that a goal doesn’t answer but a plan does. How?

The purpose of a plan is to describe how you’re going to reach a goal. What this mistake represents is your reframing or refining the goal. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but it doesn’t help you get closer to success. This is like trying to drive to Paris by buying a postcard of the Eiffel Tower.

But fixing this is simple once you’ve recognized it. Ask yourself what specific steps are required to get where you want to go. How are you going to lose weight? How are you going to make a bunch of money in the stock market? Answer those questions with specific, actionable steps, e.g. “I’m going to stop eating junk food”, or “I’m going to find promising startup businesses and buy their stock”.

When you can’t ask “how” anymore, that’s your plan; when you can’t ask “why” anymore, that’s your goal.

Mistaking the Plan for the Goal

Who hasn’t fallen into a rut? Many times I’ve found myself doing the same things over and over again but failing to accomplish anything other than wearing myself down and wondering why I was making the effort. This is a sure sign that you’ve mistaken the plan for the goal. If #1 is about answering the How, then this is about answering the Why.

In strength training, the phrase “chasing reps” refers to this. When you fixate on getting one last rep, or lifting just a few pounds heavier, even though you know you’re likely to injure yourself or you’re going to have to cheat a little bit to get it, you’re mistaking the method for the objective, or the plan for the goal. The objective of strength is to…wait for it…get stronger. Lifting weights is the method you use to accomplish the objective, and it’s only valuable to the extent it helps you achieve that objective. In other words, if you hurt yourself on that 10th rep because your form was sloppy, or you have to do a little hop to get that extra pull-up, you haven’t really made any progress–unless your goal was to strain your shoulder. Instead, focus on the objective. The reason you’re lifting is to get stronger; the numbers are just tools, not ends in and of themselves.

So what do you do when you’re fixating on the method? Simple. Stop what you’re doing and think about what you’re trying to accomplish. Ask why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you can ask why about that answer, that’s not your goal. Keep asking. Once you get to an answer that isn’t a How–that isn’t just a method, a task, or an event–that’s your real purpose.

The Most Important Strategic Planning Technique You’ll Ever Learn

When your plans and your goals don’t compliment each other, you can’t succeed. It’s a recipe for frustration. You’ll pour effort into tasks and never get any closer to the end. As you get closer to what you think is your objective, you’ll realize that it’s always on the horizon, like a mirage. One of the reasons people confuse goals and plans is because they haven’t really thought about good goal-setting.

The most valuable takeaway from my MBA was my introduction to one of the most useful strategic planning tools or techniques I’ve ever encountered: SMART. The SMART acronym stands for: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time-Limited, with various sources differing on the last two. It’s a strategic planning technique used to set goals effectively.

Vague goals don’t provide targets you can aim at effectively. How do you know how close you are to finished, or even that you are finished, if you don’t really know what “finished” looks like? Setting SMART goals gives you realistic targets and helps you string together lots of little victories, which is a powerful motivator. If you’re setting limited, specific, achievable, actionable goals, you’re much less likely to fall into the trap of mistaking a goal for a plan.

Stop Doing Things that Don’t Get You Closer to Your Goal with This Strategic Planning Technique

The other side of the coin is to avoid mistaking the plan for the goal. This is where another of the more popular strategic planning techniques comes into play. Now that you’ve used the SMART technique to set a realistic, limited, achievable goal, consider what you will need to do to get there from where you are now. Envision yourself at the end of your journey, and look back to the beginning. What was the last thing you did to achieve your goal? What was the thing you did before that? And before that? And so on, walking back until you reach the first step.

Now, you’ve got your plan. At each point, stop and ask yourself, “How is accomplishing this task bringing me closer to my goal?” Even better, ask yourself, “How does accomplishing my goal depend on my performing this task?” Get specific. If you can’t come up with a clear answer, it’s probably a distraction rather than a necessary step. At best, it’s not getting you any closer to achieving your goals. At worst, it’s a step back. Either way, it costs you time and effort and risks demoralizing you, or making you lose focus.

If you find yourself invested in doing something that doesn’t move you forward to your goal, stop and recalibrate. Take the time to reassess where you are along your plan. Do you need to change the plan? Do you need to reconsider your goal? Or do you just need to step back onto the path and keep going?

Wrapping Up

Thanks for sticking with me this long. I’ve thought often about strategic planning, a lot of the time thinking about mistakes I’ve made and lessons I’ve learned. I hope I’ve left you with some useful strategic planning techniques that you can apply to your own endeavors. If you’ve found this worth reading and want to check out some related posts, take a look at my observations so far as a new entrepreneur here: Five Thoughts on Online Retail from a Newbie.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *