Navigating your way through complexity in a rapidly changing, information-saturated world

The pace of change has increased, the growth in complexity has multiplied, and information has proliferated at an unprecedented pace.  We are in extraordinary times.  And unprecedented times call for unique and disciplined approaches if we are to survive and thrive. In this fourth of a series, I unpack a set of recommendations for strategies, processes, attitudes, habits, and disciplines to build into your lives and businesses – things I call sails and keels – to help us survive and thrive in these unprecedented times.  In this post, I describe the next keel – the discipline of regular review and planning.


First, a few words about discipline.

For much of my professional life, I’ve observed that a lack of discipline is the primary reason why some people are successful, and others are not. It is one of those bedrock characteristics that shape our lives and enable us to acquire the skills and knowledge it takes to succeed. So, it’s a big deal.

Let’s drill down into it.  The dictionary lists these synonyms: self-control, self-restraint, mastery. Wikipedia defines self-discipline this way: [discipline] is about creating new habits of thought, action, and speech toward improving oneself and to reach institutional goals. 

My definition:  An act of will whereby we engage in activities that are designed to improve ourselves and/or our organizations regardless of whether they are pleasant or not.

Here’s my best example.  I am a morning lap swimmer.  I started 30 years ago when I discovered that swimming laps relieved the pain in my back.  I’ve been swimming a few times every week ever since.

For many of those years, I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Imagine getting up at 6 AM in the middle of January.  Driving to the swimming pool in the cold and dark.  After having located a parking spot on the street, stepping into slush and snow, and then slipping and sliding into the building with a single-digit temperature and the wind and snow swirling around you.  Then, imagine changing out of street clothes and into a swimming suit, and then jumping into a lap pool which is kept considerably cooler than regular swimming pools.  For the next 30 minutes, imagine swimming mindlessly back and forth in what is the most boring exercise known to mankind.  You can’t talk to the guy next to you, you can’t watch TV like you can on a treadmill – you just must gut it out.

I don’t like it.  And, the truth is, I’d rather not do it.  But, for 30 years I’ve done it – once or twice a week. It’s a discipline.  I chose to do it by an act of willpower because I know that I’ll feel better, my back won’t hurt, and I’ll think more clearly.

Individuals and organizations need disciplines if they are going to come anywhere close to reaching their potential.  I have grandchildren who have no discipline, and their lives are chaotic.  As a sales consultant and trainer, I have seen sales forces with very little discipline, and they border on anarchy and chaos and become unmanageable.   I have seen companies that lacked disciplined processes and procedures, and they were always worse off because of it.

On the other hand, those individuals who have the wisdom and strength of will, identify and hold to certain disciplines do better.  The same is true of organizations.  The disciplines which we build into our routines, our policies, and our procedures prevent us from dissipating our energies, keep us focused, and help us be our best selves.

It is not an either/or matter.  Rarely is there an individual or organization with no discipline – at least not outside of prisons. Rather, it is typically a matter of degree – some individuals and organizations are very disciplined, others not so much.

Discipline requires a rational agreement on the activity, and sufficient willpower to adhere to it regardless of all the reasons jostling for that same chunk of time and energy.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like it, if you have other things to do if you’re not feeling well, if you are too busy, etc.  You do it because you committed to it and you know it will be better for you either as an individual or your organization. Think of it like eating your broccoli – only corporately.  You may not like it, but you do it anyway because you know it’s good for you. It’s a discipline.

There are, of course, thousands of activities that can be developed into disciplines.  For purposes of this post, we’re only going to consider one.  Because we live in unprecedented chaotic times, with complexity and choices at every juncture, we need to develop some ways to consistently deal with the overwhelming environment.

In an earlier post, I offered the analogy of a sailboat, which is able to navigate under control through turbulent waters because of the dynamic tension between the sails which provide power and energy to move the boat forward, and the keel, which provides stability and steadiness and holds it in place.  That image of things we add to our routines that move us forward – like sails – and those that hold us in place – like keels, is a helpful way to organize our lives and our businesses to survive and thrive in these turbulent times. Like a sailboat, if we are going to successfully navigate our turbulent environment, we need to add sails and keels to our lives and organizations in a methodical, mindful way.  We need to build the structure that will hold us together and empower us to survive and thrive in difficult times.

Thus far, we’ve identified these sails and keels:

Keel:   An articulated purpose or vision

Sail:    An acceptance of personal responsibility

Sail:    An attitude of openness.

It’s time for our next keel:  The discipline of regular planning and reviewing.

Planning is, of course, the process of articulating a set of future actions that are designed to accomplish a goal or some part of it. Planning looks forward.  Reviewing is the process of considering the actions that you have taken and comparing them with the plan and/or the goal.  It looks backward.

Building in regular time to plan and review is a discipline that will act as a keel – helping you learn from your experiences and thus continually improve, providing an opportunity to do mid-course corrections, and keeping the ultimate purpose insight so that you are not thrown here or there by the waves of rapid change swirling around you.

The characteristics of these planning/reviewing events are always the same, although the focus and the details vary.

It should be a dedicated time.  Dedicated means that you do nothing else in the time allotted. Turn off the phone, eliminate interruptions and focus on the questions at hand. Remember the power of ‘immersion.’  If you want to think well about something, eliminate all interruptions and immerse yourself into the agenda.

The famous educator John Dewey said,

“There is no greater enemy of effective thinking than divided interest.”

In our Kahle Way® Sales Management System, for example, we recommend that the annual version of this meeting between managers and salespersons be held off-site.  That means someplace other than your office.  Among other things, meeting offsite provides an atmosphere where there are no interruptions.  You want the work that you do in these regular planning and review meetings to be the best that it can be, and that means that you must arrange the circumstances to facilitate your (and your team’s) best thinking.

The agenda should consist of a series of questions. (You may want to read some additional material on questions.  Asking Better Sales Questions, Questions to ask Yourself.)  With some minor variations, they can be the same set of questions.  First, review the previous period of time:

Did I (we) do what we said we were going to do?

How did it go? 

What went well?

What didn’t work as well as we thought?

What should we do better next time?

What should we not do again?

Then, it should naturally progress to looking forward:

What should I (we) do in this next period?

How will measure it?

What deadlines should we put on it?

What resources should we allocate to it?

Who will be responsible for it?

Depending on the duration (annually versus daily, for example) and the formality of the meeting, the answers should be recorded and distributed after the meeting.  They become the fodder for the next planning/review meeting.

This discipline of planning/reviewing should be done on a regular basis.

Annually – For years I have recommended a one-or-two-day annual planning retreat for individuals.  Use it to review last year and learn from it, to create an annual plan with all the details and deadlines for next year, to clean out the file system, and to organize yourself for next year.

For organizations, this typically looks like a strategic planning meeting involving all the key leadership.  It should be at least one day, dedicated, off-site, with the outcome to be a set of one-page plans for each of no more than seven initiatives. Being guided by the company’s vision and mission statement, and informed by your best understanding of today’s circumstances, the annual meeting is a time to identify the most important things the organization can accomplish.  See my other articles on Goal setting and determining what to Focus-on-First.

Quarterly – For individuals, this should be a half-day dedicated to a detailed review of the annual plan, the progress you have made, and the fine-tuning adjustments to be made in the next quarter.  For organizations, the original annual planning team should reconvene for at least a half-day, and work through the same agenda.

Monthly – A couple of dedicated hours should suffice for both individuals and organizations.  Follow the guidelines described above.

Weekly – This is more for individuals, to determine the best set of actions they can take in the coming week.  Don’t worry about the review, just focus on the plan.

Daily – Ditto.

Pre and post-event — any big and important events – trade shows, important sales calls, vendor meetings, etc. lend themselves to the same process:  A planning meeting before and a review meeting afterward.

In my first full-time professional sales position, decades ago, my manager advised me to “spend 20 percent of your time planning for the other 80 percent, and you will be far more effective as a result.”  In a world where the opportunities and diversions are unprecedented, the discipline of dedicated planning/review time is one the things that will keep you on course, and prevent your time and energy ( and those of your organization) from being blown here and there with every puff of wind.

It’s a keel that will help you survive and thrive in unprecedented times of change.



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