Progress is taking the right action that can only come from a well-thought-out written plan.

Think about the last time you attended an industry trade show, a training workshop or an association meeting and you got back to your shop all fired up to change things for the better. You rolled out a new program that seemed like a good idea, but then you were stuck dealing with push-back and frustration from the staff or your customers - or both. It probably got so bad you threw up your hands and abandoned the change altogether.

Congratulations! Now you know the difference between action and progress.

Action without planning is really just commotion. It gets a lot of people running around being busy, doing stuff that they think is absolutely essential or what they need to make the boss get off their back. They go off in a way that they each think is best. Nothing is discussed - including clear goals and parameters - so more often than not, the effort is wasted on all the wrong actions.

Progress, on the other hand, is taking the right action that can only come from a well-thought-out written plan. Then, that plan needs to be broken into smaller doable action steps that have small intermediate goals and benchmarks. Finally, the secret ingredient requires you to invest the time and energy from the creation through the rollout phase to build buy-in so it will stick.

It’s best to start by taking a 48-hour breather from doing the work. For most of you, that means taking an undisturbed weekend because you’ll need that time to create an easy-to-share vision on where your company needs to go. It’s what I call seeing your company “a mile down the road.”

You’ll also need the time to create a written plan. This plan will then need to be broken down into a set of doable steps designed to reach your goal. These right-action steps are what we need. I call this process, “Walking a block at a time in the right direction.”

Two Separate Skills

“Seeing a mile down the road” and “Walking a block at a time in the right direction” requires that the owner possess two very different skills. There is the one skill to be a visionary and the other skill to do things step-by-step in the right sequence.

Things get bogged down when an owner has only one skill and not the other. And if you’re the sole owner, you must be honest with yourself and determine whether you possess both skills. If not, you’ll need to surround yourself with someone who possesses the other skill you’re weak at or lacking all together. This may require the help of someone from outside your company.

It actually gets worse when partners are at odds because one is a visionary and the other is only focused on getting today’s work done. Both skills are needed. The visionary partner can clearly see where the company needs to go, but doesn’t have the ability to break it down and follow up on the steps it’ll take to get there. It requires discipline to make small, consistent steps toward a goal. And the other partner who is great at cranking out the day-to-day things the business requires never looks up to see where the company needs to go, so he’s off course more than he’s on track. 

The trick is for the two partners to see each other’s gift and maximize each other’s strength by communicating with one another on how to get true progress. Many times this, too, requires an outsider to help both parties learn how to turn action into progress.

The age-old question when dealing with something big is, “How do you eat an elephant?” And the same old answer applies, “A bite at a time.”

Progress demands an implementation program that has us eating at the project a bite at a time. It must be clear when you’re implementing a new program how it will be phased in, what the timeframe is, the bite-sized steps that will be taken and the “WIIFM” (What’s in it for me?) proposition.

This last step is overlooked or ignored too often. Because knowing the “WIIFMs” is what takes a well-thought-out plan off the drawing board and turns action into real progress for all.