by Steve Graves

I don’t just coach CEOs. I own or co-own some small businesses as well. In a couple of them I am instituting a framework called Think/Plan/Do.
I’m convinced that every successful business and organization devotes time and energy to each of these three activities:
  • Think—How might we _________?
  • Plan—What’s the right order?
  • Do—“Git ‘r done.”
We’re all naturally wired to one or the other. You probably self-identified already, but if not, tests like the Birkman Analysis, Enneagram, or the old “Honey, which one of these do you think I’m best at?” can do the trick.
Most people are not naturally good at all three. According to Harvard Business Reviewonly 8% of leaders are good at strategy and execution. And that’s only two of the three areas.
Businesses and organizations can naturally lean one way or the other as well, but they can’t afford to just do one or two well. Long-lasting success requires effort and focus in all three areas.
Thinking, planning and doing are separate but interdependent disciplines and activities. When 3M looks at a new project, they have branches for what they call scouts, entrepreneurs, and implementers. The categories don’t perfectly line up with think/plan/do, but you get the idea. You’ve got to have all three disciplines.
You don’t need all three in the exact same ratio necessarily. Every organization is different and needs thinking, planning, and doing in different doses and in different seasons. A drug company that has most of its people in research, for example, had better have some phenomenal outputs because they’re so heavily weighted on the “thinking” side.
Apple, on the other hand, is entrepreneurial by nature, so it defaults to doing. Just ship it. But when they ship the iPhone X, it’s clear that a whole lot of thinking and planning has gone on behind the scenes.
You’ve got to have all three—Think, Plan, Do.
The kind of thinking I’m talking about is not planning. I’m talking about imagining and brainstorming. But it’s also not just daydreaming. It’s reasoning, researching, observing, and analyzing. What are some ways to think?
  • Thinking about the futureto imagine what could be.
  • Problem-solving thinking to deal with current obstacles.
  • Exposure thinking to spot new ideas, models, and studies.
  • Strategic thinkingto get better and more focused on your core issues.
Focused, deliberate, structured thinking can be difficult because we’re addicted to performance, noise, and activity. Cal Newport’s Deep Work is a book on this idea; we’ve got to cut out noise in order to do good thinking.
We’ve also got to be willing to be non-productive because thinking doesn’t always produce something great. In fact, it often doesn’t.
But keep in mind what the author John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” And there are, in fact, ways to improve your thinking.
Carve off some time and find some space (you might need a change of venue for a good view) to be quiet and think. Think with your eyes open and your brain on. Get a journal and pen or iPad or laptop to record what you come up with. Consider some conversations or reading that will help you along the way, and get thinking.
At some point, you’ve got to stop thinking, though. If you think forever, you’ll never actually get anything done. You’ve got to convert your genius thinking and newfound directional clarity into a plan.
There are different types of plans, but no matter the format of the plan, a good plan must do at least these five things:
  • Translate the thinking into an action plan
  • Evaluate the resources needed and resources in place
  • Sequence the tasks
  • Provide clarity of the desired outcomes
  • Suggest metrics to evaluate along the way
But let me be clear. There’s not a perfect one-size-fits-all plan out there. It has to fit your style and fit the organizational style. It has to be simple enough to be widely used but beefy enough to carry the weighty thinking behind it. I’ve seen plans scribbled on a napkin, and I’ve seen plans that tell me when and where in the office to get a Diet Coke in 2027. That’s only a slight exaggeration.
The packaging, though, can vary widely. Carl Schramm, who wrote Burn the Business Plan, argues for a new approach that looks nothing like a traditional business plan, but even in that, there is sequencing and clarity in the right places.
Seth Godin is the chief evangelist of “Just Ship It.” You can watch a Ted Talk on what he calls “Quieting the Lizard Brain” here, but in short, the idea is that you can’t wait for the perfect plan. At some point, you have to “do.”
Doers are those who make, achieve, perform, act, and execute. They’re usually intuitive, and they can think on the fly because they make rapid adjustments (in contrast, planners are usually pretty poor pivoters).
Millennials are often pretty good at doing because they’re comfortable iterating, whereas many baby boomers need the perfect plan and then execution begins. Are you a doer by nature?
The value of doing is that learning is accelerated. You find the holes in your plan and in your thinking—how does the customer really respond? Do I have the sequencing right? Do I have the right resources in place? How does this affect my work-life balance and my family?
There are certainly limitations to “just ship it”, but there is certainly something to be said to ending the planning and procrastination and getting something out there.
As the Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”
Organizations don’t have sustained success if they’re only good at one or two of the three. Whether it’s a huge Fortune 500 company or a local non-profit start-up, both have to be thinking, planning, and doing … all the time.