A Framework for Resilient Planning

The time has come — at long last — to put 2020 to bed and get ready for 2021.

As long-time readers will know, I like to mark these transitions intentionally. I find it really helpful to think back on the year that has been — what worked and what didn’t work — and what I hope my life will look like in the coming year. Back in 2018, I shared some ways we can treat this process as a sacred practice. I summarized these in a post last year, and if you’re interested, I encourage you to check that out, because I do think that it’s a helpful and, well, beautiful way to end the year.

But 2020 has been the kind of year that brings to mind the old expression, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” One of the lessons this year has really brought home for me is the usefulness of the concept of ‘calling an audible.’ This is a metaphor taken from (North American) football. These forms of football are very strategic and involve set plays and a lot of planning. But, sometimes after a play is called, the quarterback (the player who leads the play) sees something that causes him to change the play in the moment. This is called an ‘audible’. Seeing that the defense has guessed what he was going to do, or that their alignment has left a hole he knows his team can exploit, it would be foolish for him to stubbornly keep to the original plan and so he changes it on the fly to something with a greater chance of succeeding.

This past year has been a year of audibles for me, and I’m sure for all of us. And now, as we enter 2021, planning for the coming year is hindered by the fact that we simply have no idea what the year is going to look like. If immunization efforts are successful, there’s a chance the world could look something similar to ‘normal’ by Summer. But at this point it’s far too soon to know. Will we return to the busy, jet-setting ways of 2019? Will we still be in lockdowns? Or, if it’s in between, where on that spectrum will we be?

And so today, I’d like to offer a goal-setting framework that is more resilient to risky and uncertain situations. Traditional goal-setting frameworks, like SMARRT goals, are excellent and highly successful when all else is equal. But they fall short when a lot is out of our control, as it was in 2020 and will continue to be in 2021. For example, one of my major goals for 2020 was to travel overseas for my fortieth birthday. In January, this goal met all of the SMARRT criteria — it was specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, relevant, and time-bound — and yet because of things out of my control, it ceased to be achievable by mid-February. I called an audible and still managed to have a meaningful birthday, but the goal itself was not met.

The framework I want to offer today puts goals into a system that allows us to call audibles more easily. This framework consists of four elements, placed in a hierarchy, like a nesting doll:

  1. Vision: This is the overall purpose of the project or plan. So, for a year-ahead plan, the vision would be the big overarching theme you’d like for your year. It asks the question: What do I want to do in the big picture?
  2. Objectives: These state how the vision will be expressed. It asks the question, How will I know I’ve achieved my vision?
  3. Strategies: These are the different ways you go about meeting your objectives. It asks the question, In what ways will I accomplish my objectives?
  4. Techniques: These are the specific steps required to enact the strategies. This step answers the question, What precisely am I going to do?

What I like about this framework is that it sees the specific things we want to accomplish as part of a bigger system of value and meaning. In order for a project to work well, all four levels have to be functioning well together. This makes it easier to call audibles — and the right audibles, at the right level — when the need arises.

Take my 2020 plan for international travel. If I had used this framework, this travel goal would be a technique that served the strategy of “having a meaningful milestone birthday.” When it became clear that international travel was not going to be in the cards, it would have been clearer how to change the technique in such a way that I could still support the strategy it was intended to serve.

At the same time, had my Vision for the year been more accomplishment-oriented than it was, or if I had not been privileged so as not to have my job and finances negatively impacted by the pandemic, the audible might have needed to be called at that highest level. (Sometimes, survival is Vision enough for a year!) Or, somewhere in between, as the need may have been.

The point is that this framework is designed to show how our goals to fit together into a system. It promotes resiliency by embedding specific goals into bigger, more meaningful structures that can be served in different ways when life throws us curve balls.

That’s probably more than enough on this, but I thought I’d share it with you since I do think it’s a helpful approach to planning amidst uncertainty. I know I’ll be using it this year for my annual planning this year, when so much is unknown.

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