© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
For some years, I've been saying, "Success comes from planning, not from hoping or wishing". Yes, you can plan for success, although I must say that this seems to be news to many people. More often than not, many people I have observed try something halfheartedly or in a disorganized fashion, and then when they fail, they rationalize that "it simply was not meant to be". Not only is that wasteful, it's nonsense! Ignoring external factors, most people are exactly where they deserve to be; those who plan for success most often are successful, and those that don't most often are not. It's that simple.
How then does one plan for success? This essay is my attempt to answer that question. I start by introducing the basics steps of the process as I have determined them, and then I illustrate them using a scenario. Although the names of the protagonists and some of the details have been changed, the problem and solution are real.
Note that the approach I document relies heavily on one writing things down at every step of the process. As such, you would do well to read first my essay "Talk is Cheap. Write it Down" from February 2011. If you can't master the steps outlined in that essay, you certainly aren't planning for success.
I'm a big fan of making lists, so let's begin with one that contains in order the main questions/steps in planning for success:
- What is the problem?
- Who is impacted by this problem and its resolution?
- What constraints exist?
- What is the solution?
- What are the costs of solving this problem?
- Who will implement the solution?
- How did it go?
Now unless you are very experienced at problem solving, you would do well to follow these steps for even seemingly simple problems. If you cut too many corners too early in the development of your skills, you likely will not achieve the desired results.
It is important to understand the meaning of the term problem as used in this context. According to my dictionary (American Heritage), when used as a noun, problem is:
- A question to be considered, solved, or answered.
- A situation, matter, or person that presents perplexity or difficulty.
To many people, the word problem has negative connotations, as in "He's a real problem." and "She always was a problem child". Such usage is not applicable to this essay.
As I stated in my first blog post ("Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it's Off to Blog We Go", December 2009"), regarding emotion, I am a Vulcan. As you follow the steps above, be careful to temper your emotions with a generous dose of reality, especially when it comes to wants versus needs.
A Case Study
Several years ago, Robyn rented a 2-bedroom apartment, and to help cover expenses she sublet the 2nd bedroom to Julia. They shared the cost of the landline telephone, the high-speed internet connection, and the cable television service. Recently, Robyn announced that she was getting married and that her husband would move in with her. As Robyn and her husband would be a 2-income family and they desired privacy, they wanted the place to themselves. Julia would have to find somewhere else to live.
Julia had recently gotten a sizeable pay raise, and she wanted a place of her own. She did the math and determined that by going without a few luxuries and by keeping to a sensible budget, she could manage to rent a 1-bedroom apartment on her own.
Step 1: What is the Problem?
Define the problem by first thinking it through, then verbalizing it, and then putting it in writing. Make sure it is the real problem, not just the most quickly or perceived problem.
I cannot emphasize enough the underlined sentence above. Over the years, I have seen some very elegant, efficient, and cost-effective solutions; however, they solved the wrong problem! People in a hurry or without sufficient discipline quite often think that the first thing they see must be the real problem; however, that is often not the case.
For Julia to get her own place, she would have many issues to consider. However, for the purposes of this discussion, we'll limit them to just a few. The problem as she defined it was, "Regarding telephone, high-speed internet connection, and television services, what is the most cost-effective solution for my current needs?"
Let's revisit the issue of defining the real problem and the potential for "running off the rails" by making an emotionally charged decision. Many of us are being bombarded constantly with advertising promoting mobile phone options, super high-speed internet connections, and whiz-bang subscription TV choices. If we want to keep up with the "in crowd" or we have way too much money, we might write the problem as, "Which package is the best that gives me all these features?" In Julia's case, the problem statement contains "most cost-effective solution" and "current needs". Until she considers her current needs and constraints, she can't begin to answer her question.
Step 2: Who is Impacted by this Problem and its Resolution?
Ask, "Who is impacted by this problem and the actions taken? Who should be notified? Is there likely to be any backlash from any other party?"
Apart from others being able to reach Julia by phone and email, no one else is impacted by the problem or any solution.
Step 3: What Constraints Exist?
Consider if there are minimum or maximum time limits, or whether a solution is needed by a specific date. Is cost a factor? What other issues impact the solution?
Some sort of telephone service needs to be in place by the time Julia moves into her new apartment. If she chose a mobile solution, that service could start prior to move-in.
Although Julia enjoys renting videos occasionally, watching TV is low on her list of priorities. Her main recreational activity is reading.
It would be useful for high-speed internet service to be in place by move-in, but this is not necessary,
Julia is an elementary school teacher. As such, she cannot be interrupted during the workday by personal phone calls. Thus far, her landline at home has been adequate, and she projects that one just like it will suffice for some time yet. Her internet needs are minimal; primarily they involve web browsing and private email (which she is prohibited from doing via her work computer). With her local supermarket renting DVDs for $1/night, she has no interest in downloading videos over the internet.
Cost is certainly a factor. Looking at nice-to-have features is okay, but she needs to separate wants from needs. However, she'd like to be able to add features to her service as she can justify and afford them.
Ultimately, Julia determined that her needs were as follows:
- A landline with a 50 local calls per month package. (Long-distance calls would be done via a discount calling card. International calls would be done via Skype-Out at 2 cents/minute.) She didn't need Caller ID, call waiting, or any of the myriad optional features.
- A broadband internet connection that permitted email with small attachments, and web browsing without large file downloads.
- No subscription TV service; she would buy and use an indoor antenna to access the numerous free channels available in her area.
Step 4: What is the Solution?
Identify the final decision(s) and state the actual steps needed for a complete, timely, and successful solution to the problem.
Here are the steps that Julia determined she needed to take:
- Draw a table containing rows for each of the features available with phone and internet services, with one column for each supplier.
- Contact each service supplier and record their information in the table, adding new rows, as new features become known. If features from one supplier don't exactly match those from another, try to weight them, so comparisons can be made logically rather than emotionally.
- Choose one supplier for both services or different suppliers for each service.
- For internet service, hook up the modem/router and install any required software.
- For phone service, set up a Skype account, sign-up to Skype-Out, and set up a Skype-to-Go local number for access by regular phone. Configure Skype-to-Go speed-dial numbers via the computer.
- For TV service, hook up the antenna and configure the TV tuner to the channels available.
- Configure the DVD player to both play and record, and configure the VHS player to play.
Step 5: What are the Costs of Solving this Problem?
Consider the costs in time/money/resources.
Apart from actually paying for the new services, the main cost was the time it took to obtain and compare the prices and services from different vendors. There was also the cost of an indoor TV antenna.
[In Step 7, we'll see that recording to DVD resulted in an unexpected cost.]
Step 6: Who Will Implement the Solution?
Consider who will take the action, and, if need outside help, identify whom.
Julia did the research herself. A friend helped her select and buy the antenna, and installed the internet and video equipment. She was able to set up Skype-Out and a Skype-to-Go local number herself. [Note that having a friend help can involve risk. Is that friend able to see the issues from the other's perspective or are they introducing their own bias to the solution of the problem?]
Step 7: How Did it Go?
Afterwards, do a postmortem as to what did or did not work and add any necessary improvements to the general plan. Did it succeed because of the plan; was it accidental, or influenced by outside forces?
How do you know you succeeded? After having spent time and money, but not necessarily having a defensible plan, many people rationalize that their solution "must be okay", even when it really might not be!
In Julia's case, the best phone deal included unlimited local and long-distance calls in the US for a reasonable fixed price. It also included DSL internet access, whose performance was adequate. (While it wouldn't support high-speed video streaming, that was not a requirement.)
Although more than 35 digital TV channels were available over the air in the neighborhood, inside, the reception for many turned out to be poor or non-existent. Julia's apartment was on the second floor of a 4-floor building with large trees front and back. It was hard to get a good signal with an indoor antenna. That said the few channels she watched regularly generally were available.
Recording TV programs to DVD required an unexpected cost, of some $300. The tuner in the TV was just for the TV, and like pretty much all digital TVs, her TV had no capability to output a signal to a recorder. (This task is usually handled by a cable or satellite box.) As such, Julia had to buy a new DVD unit that had a built-in digital tuner. This let her record one program to disk even while watching a different program live. The unit she bought was a combo DVD/VHS.
The bottom line was that the implementation was a success, and, except for the cost of the new DVD unit, it went exactly as planned. In fact, Julia would recover the complete cost of her new 40" digital TV, antenna, DVD/VHS unit, and 3-handset wireless phone system with the savings she'd make by not having subscription TV for the next 12–15-month period.
Additional Rules for Success
Once at short notice, I was asked to give some guidelines on being successful. Here's what I came up with:
- It is much easier to be different than it is to be better. (Think outside the box. Don't compete head-on; look for an angle.)
- Always think that you work for yourself even if you really work for someone else.
- Invest in yourself. (If you don't take an interest in yourself, why should anyone else?)
- Do you really want to manage people? Be honest now.
- Opportunities are all around us; they simply need to be recognized. They can even be created!
- Good written and spoken communications are extremely valuable. (No matter how good your ideas might be, if you can't express them they'll languish.)
- Be true to yourself first, and then to your friends/family and employer/clients.
- Treat every first meeting as the beginning of a potentially long-term relationship.
- Don't be afraid to volunteer. (Being an organizer of an activity puts you at the center of that activity even if you are brand new to the group.)
- Getting noticed could result in more opportunities, so don't be afraid to "blow your own horn" a bit.
There is an old adage, "Success breeds success". I've seen that happen and I've experienced it firsthand many times. If you plan for success, then except for faulty planning or factors beyond your control, why shouldn't you be successful? After all, you are as good as the next person, maybe even better. Right? Now go forth and succeed, and remember, if you tell yourself that you can't do something, don't be surprised if that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy!