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The Center for Sales Strategy Blog

Proof That Old Saw About ‘Failing To Plan’ is Really True

planning-for-success“Those who fail to plan are guilty of planning to fail.”

I know you’ve heard that before, if not a hundred times before. But before you dismiss it as a mere bromide, I want you to pause and consider why it’s still being passed from person to person after all these years—it happens to be true. 

Some mind-blowing evidence: The graduating seniors in Harvard University’s Class of 1953 were asked if they had written goals. Only 2% did. Twenty years later, the handful of graduates who comprised that 2% were in possession of 98% of all the wealth held by all members of the Class of ’53. 

Most of them had goals, but only a handful were so serious about their goals that they wrote them down. Do you have written goals? Of course, you do—when you head out to the supermarket. You call it a shopping list, and whether it’s scribbled on paper or keyed into a note on your smartphone, it’s a written description of exactly what you intend to come home with. But do you set goals for your life or your career with the same diligence you give to a grocery list? 

Two out of every 100 Harvard grads did, and look what they came home with! The seemingly simple act of writing down your goals has magic and power. Those who are most serious about those goals then multiply that magic and power by telling someone else about their goals, instantly adding accountability to the focus and commitment inherent in writing them down. 

Turning Goals into Plans: Stop Failing to Plan

You can assume that the savvy Harvard grads who wrote their goals down took them a step further. They turned those goals into plans. What is a plan? It’s simply a path to the goal, the actions that need to be taken, and when and how they need to be taken. To continue our shopping metaphor, think of it as the route to the grocery store; if you don’t turn in the right direction at the right point along the journey, you’ll never make it to the store. And just as your route to the store may need to be altered by construction or a traffic tie-up, so too the path to your written goal will probably need to be modified as you pursue it.

When you turn a goal into a series of action steps, you transform a very big dream into component parts, even into bite-size pieces, making it suddenly appear entirely doable, perhaps even easy. What you learn at each step either confirms that you’re still on the path to succeed or it provides you with the information you need to tweak the path. That’s why Dwight Eisenhower, who happened to be president when those Harvard seniors received their degrees, said “Plans are worthless, but planning is indispensable.” It’s a certainty the plan will keep changing, but you can’t change a plan that doesn’t exist, which is why planning is of such crucial importance.

This is some heavy stuff, some readers are saying about now. So temporarily set aside those gnawing thoughts about writing down career goals and life goals. In part 2 of this series, I’ll ask you just to think about next week, about what business you’d like to come home with—or make real progress on—over the next seven days.

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Topics: Management leadership