How a Common Tool will Increase Your Chances of Success.

Everyone Should Have a 90-Day Plan.

“Stay hungry. Stay foolish,” Steve Jobs advised the 2005 Stanford graduates, linking our hunger to take on new challenges — and the corresponding foolishness to experiment with new ideas — to what often become our proudest moments. And yet, as we go through our daily activities, it’s easy to lose that hunger — trading it for comfort and convenience.

As people gain success throughout their careers, they naturally become more risk-averse. If you have more to lose, it’s reasonable that you’ll be more cautious of risking it.

And you want to continue to pile up the wins. So you focus on the areas you know best — likely the products and programs where you gained success in the first place.

All of this is natural and expected. And it’s a reasonable way of trying to preserve the success you’ve gained to date.

Unfortunately, it might just be the reason that you lose it all as well.

“Do not be subject to inertia.” — Josh Waitzkin, Tribe of Mentors

Nearly 60 years ago, Theodore Levitt of Harvard wrote the article Marketing Myopia, where he points out that “every major industry was once a growth industry.” But as these companies kept growing, their management started to believe that continued success was guaranteed. They stopped investing in innovation and new products, instead focusing on increasing size and cutting margins.

In short, they stopped being hungry. And they stopped being foolish.

Until they were eventually disrupted by another company that was.

In Dynamic Economics, Burton Klein reviewed 50 of the key twentieth century breakthroughs that drove major growth in relatively static industries. In conclusion, he “could find no case in which the advance in question came from a major firm in the industry.” The economist and investor George Gilder supplements this thought with the finding that, “The very process by which a firm becomes most productive in an industry tends to render it less flexible and inventive.”

As many of these companies became successful, they became more rigid and controlled. They stopped experimenting with new ideas. They decreased their tolerance for mistakes. Mainly, they forgot about the behaviors that made them successful in the first place.

This same cycle impacts our own careers. Initial risk and experimentation leads to success. Which leads to greater responsibility and expectations. Which in turn leads to reduced willingness to take risks and experiment.

It’s easy, in hindsight, to see this drift. It’s much more difficult to recognize the cycle when you’re in the middle of it.

I’m not suggesting that people should continue to bet the farm throughout their careers. Blindly refusing to adjust your risk exposure is a guaranteed path to bankruptcy. But swinging the pendulum completely in the other direction only leads to stagnation and mediocrity.

The key, like many things, involves balance. It’s in recognizing the need to continue driving into new areas without sacrificing the gains you’ve made to date.

Fortunately, we’ve all had periods in our careers where we’ve done that very thing.

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.” — Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki.

Think about the last time you started a new job. Or remember the last time you took over a different area of the organization. Or started a new project or role.

Chances are good that there was a lot of new information to learn. There were new people to meet and relationships to build. And there was a drive to deliver results and prove your credibility in this new area.

Most importantly, for the sake of this conversation at least, there was a hunger to make an impact outside the bounds of your comfort zone.

New positions, new responsibilities, and new jobs all offer a limited timeframe to prove our worth. They offer a near-term incentive to quickly deliver positive, tangible results. And we frequently respond with a strong, committed effort to support these expectations.

Just as a startup is more likely to push new bounds, when we’re new to a role, we have the same hunger to challenge existing paradigms and threaten the convention.

The solution, then, seems to be capturing this same drive over the course of our entire careers. Adopting this beginner’s mindset keeps us hungry for new risks. And foolish enough to try some new experiments.

All of which is easily said, easily promised, and just as easily forgotten. You don’t need more motivational slogans on the importance of taking risks and experimenting. Knowing what you’re supposed to do is rarely the same as doing it.

Instead, we need systems that push us into these actions. As the saying goes, “you don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” And fortunately, a ready-made option already exists.

“The president of the United States gets 100 days to prove himself; you get 90. The actions you take during your first few months in a new role will largely determine whether you succeed or fail,” wrote Michael Watkins to open his book, The First 90 Days. To prepare people for the transition into a new role, Watkins developed a 90-day plan framework to help tackle the challenges of proving yourself in a new role.

In these plans, Watkins offers a system for accelerating the point that we can make a positive impact on the organization. And after having used them in several new positions, I can personally attest to their effectiveness.

But what if these weren’t just a tool for job changes? What if they became a tool that we continuously used to push us into new areas?

We often talk about the importance of learning from our behaviors. But learning only happens when we have something to learn from. It only happens when we’ve taken a step forward and turned thoughts and aspirations into actions.

One of the biggest differences in those who continue to grow in new areas and those who drift into obsolescence is their willingness to try new things and experiment. There’s nothing magical about this. It’s simply a step between inaction and action, thinking and doing, abstract and concrete. But without a system — without a plan — it’s easy to be overwhelmed in the face or ambiguity and challenge.

Which is why 90-day plans are so powerful — they force us to focus on near-term deliverables. They help us take an ambiguous new problem and break it into discrete and manageable steps — all the while focusing on what we’re going to have done by the end of the day. And then by the end of the week.

This system, proven to help people traverse the difficult terrain of a new role, also lends itself to taking on new challenges. It doesn’t need to be 100% of your time. It doesn’t even need to be a majority. But try taking 20% of your effort and focusing it towards a new problem. Take 20% of your time and adopt a beginner’s mindset towards a new growth opportunity. And leverage a 90-day plan to help you focus on making an immediate impact through the following steps:

Diagnose the Situation. How we spend our careers, and our lives, is largely a matter of attention — where and how we choose to focus our energy. Thus our most significant challenge is often recognizing where we need to shift our focus next. We all have a tendency to bias our attention towards areas that reflect our preferences and our strengths — creating the potential for vulnerabilities and blindspots. Where are you biasing your attention towards certain challenges and away from others? What liabilities is this creating? Where are you failing to deal with an issue because it’s outside your comfort zone?

Create a Learning Agenda. New situations, and new opportunities, often present an overwhelming amount of information. There’s so much to learn, it’s easy to freeze up and not know where to even start. And without a systematic approach, people tend to default into either (a) doing nothing, or (b) mindlessly spinning their wheels on trivial details. What do you need to learn? How will you go about learning it? And what are some actionable goals to assess whether you’re staying on course? As Watkins wrote, “A learning agenda crystallizes your learning priorities: what do you most need to learn? It consists of a focused set of questions to guide your inquiry or the hypotheses you want to explore and test, or both.”

Improve Alignment. Most managers, when looking to fix a struggling area of an organization, will focus on elements of the organization’s architecture. They’ll look at the structure, evaluate the skills mix, or check on the core processes. But rarely do people evaluate these areas in conjunction. Rarely do companies assess the system for alignment. A change in structure may necessitate a different posture for processes. And as skills mix fluctuates, structure and processes need to adjust accordingly. How does your surrounding environment align to where you need to influence change? How does your strategic direction align to the existing architecture? And where does it need to change? In Watkins’s words, “Look at supporting structure, processes, and skills. Look at whether your group’s existing structure, processes, and skill bases support the strategic direction — either the existing one (if you decide not to change it) or the one you envision.”

Develop Short-term Wins. “Nothing succeeds like success,” as the old saying goes. Yet it’s easy to neglect the importance of demonstrating early victories while pursuing a larger effort. Others won’t necessarily share your vision and drive. They’ll quickly begin to question whether the sacrifices are worth it. A series of early wins helps provide positive evidence that you’re on the right track and keeps people on board. They build credibility and undermine dissenters. But most importantly, they build momentum that can be leveraged for greater gains going forward. How can you plan for some visible, tangible wins to demonstrate early progress? What would you expect to see if the project was moving on track? And what impacts will build momentum for the team around you? The point isn’t to maximize short-term success at the expense of the future. It’s to make sure that visible result give credibility to your efforts. As Watkins wrote, “As you plan how to secure early wins, keep in mind your overarching goal: creating a virtuous cycle that reinforces wanted behavior and contributes to helping you achieve your agreed-to goals for the organization. Remember that you’re aiming at modest but significant early improvements so that you can pursue more fundamental changes.”

Build Relationships. Each new situation provides an opportunity to expand your network. But strengthening our existing connections and better understanding the reasons that people behave as they do is a never-ending process, regardless of your role. People behave the way they do for a reason. And if you want to influence the way they behave, it’s critical to understand those reasons. Where can you strengthen existing relationships or build new ones? How can you reach out to better understand people’s motivations? And how can you better understand the situational pressures that drive their behaviors?

“But above all, try something.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt

If your work is important, it’s likely going to be difficult. And if you’ve gained success before, it’s understandable that you’re hesitant on taking further risk. But I doubt that your success came from following a standard set of guidelines. And it likely didn’t come about by avoiding risk and always playing it safe. As Seth Godin once said, “you can’t out-obedience the competition.”

Sacrificing your willingness to experiment and test new areas is failing to remember those behaviors that led to your success in the first place. It’s through that beginner’s mindset that you’re able to retain that hunger for new challenges — and that foolishness to test new ideas — which keeps us growing in new ways.

It’s easy to become mired in your daily actions. It’s easy to lose focus on branching into new areas and settle for the comfort of past successes. Which is why 90-day plans are so helpful. They push us into new areas while focusing our efforts towards tangible results.

They’re also short-term. They help us take control and make quick experiments with rapid learning. A new plan every 90 days means four new challenges and opportunities each year. Which are four more than most people will even begin.

Where do you want to grow. Where will you be hungry? Where will you be foolish?

Thanks, as always, for reading. Agree? Disagree? Other suggestions? Let me know, I’d love to hear from you. And if you found this helpful, I’d appreciate if you could help me share with more people. Cheers!

Enemy of the Status Quo.

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