In this episode of Change Your Game with GTD®, Todd Brown and Robert Peake shed some light on how to “de-squish” — that is elegantly clarify — those outcomes that seem otherwise vague and ambiguous, using GTD best practices.
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00:05 Robert Peake: Hi everyone, I’m Robert Peake and welcome to another Change Your Game with GTD podcast. I’m here as always with Todd Brown.
00:12 Todd Brown: Hello everyone.
00:13 RP: Hey Todd. So the purpose of this is to elucidate some of the Getting Things Done GTD methodology, specifically as it applies to you, and your life, and how you not only work, putting your nose to the grindstone, but think about your work, backing up from all of that. Just try and work a little smarter, more elegantly, to be a bit more effective in what you do, in terms of how you’ve defined that, kind of defined what effectiveness is and what it means for you, not only in your work, but in the richness of your life. So we’ve been doing this for a while, and one of the fun things is that listeners, viewers send in questions, they comment on what we’ve talked about previously. And they’re curious about whether we could address a particular topic.
01:04 RP: One caught our eyes, it was coming through the email stream from Joost. He’s a project manager and a long-time GTDer, really having a lot of success with the stuff that has really sort of, in his mind, clear finish lines, as I understand it, but wanting to know a little bit more about the squishy stuff. The stuff that’s maybe a little more interesting to define in terms of what a successful outcome would be. Things that are more on the kind of, in the want-to category, but also things he mentioned, like acquisition strategy, or team vision. Right? Stuff that you don’t necessarily throw onto a Gantt chart, just tick off the bits along the way in a real predictable manner. Todd, your initial thoughts on the so-called squishy stuff out there?
01:51 TB: Yeah, I think this comes up for folks a lot. Sometimes if you just think about what we recommend by way of the core activities in planning, right? So we talk about the power of focusing on outcomes, defining projects, in most cases, is what that means. What does the finish line look like? The finish line looks like, “I’ve got a new car.” The finish line looks like, “I’ve got my spring holiday planned.” The finish line looks like, “I’ve got a new team member hired.” Right? And then we talk about the other element of planning that’s sort of in the core of the GTD methodology, is “Next actions.” Right? So what is the very next physical, visible thing I’m gonna do to move this forward. And I think for a lot of the things in our lives, that’s enough planning. And when I say enough, my guideline for whether I or one of my clients have done enough planning is, “Is this off my mind for now?” Which is something that… Actually I heard the quote, “Is this off my mind?” Originally from David Allen, and I’m pretty sure it was you Robert, who added that little tag, which I find hugely valuable.
03:06 TB: “Is this off my mind for now?” In other words, “Have I finished the thinking about it for now?” That’s not to say that when it comes time to actually execute on the action that I won’t think about it then, of course. But, “Is it off my mind for now?” So as they say, those two questions. Right? “What’s the desired outcome?” Or, “What’s the project?” And then secondly, “What’s the next action?” For a lot of the things in our life, in our lives, that’s enough. Right? That’s enough planning and we’ll probably feel like, “Okay, my brain is relaxed now about that thing.” But as you say, not everything falls into that category. Sometimes if you’ve got a really big outcome, and when I say big, it could be big in terms of scale, it could be big in terms of your perception of its risk in terms of who’s looking and what could go wrong, it could be big in terms of the amount of money that you’re investing, or your organisation is investing, or potentially investing in it.
04:02 TB: There are a number of ways you can sort of define “Big.” But in all of those cases… It could also be just very long-term, it could be quite a long project. And in those cases I find that the “Next action” question and the “What’s the outcome?” question, you know, “What’s the project definition?” Those are interesting, but they don’t quite get us to the point where we’ve gotten things… That we’ve gotten those bigger things completely off our minds, and that’s where I think we need to think more broadly about, “How much planning do I need to do in order to get this thing off my mind?” How much thinking through? And what are the tools I could use? What are the tools that I could use to help do that additional planning? Again, beyond the “Next action” and “Outcome” question. And GTD offers a lot here. I’m sort of feeling the need to get your thoughts here Robert. So if you… In those cases where you do have those bigger things, What kinds of tools do you bring to bear? What kinds of approaches out of the GTD methodology are helpful for you?
05:10 RP: Well, that’s such a great point Todd, that there are always tools. Right? There are always ways. For me, one of the biggest ones for the big things is something we call the Natural Planning Model, because it really helps to tease out some of the components that help you, help me anyway, get to that level of comfort. That level of, “This is off my mind for now.” And actually I think it may have been Meg, Meg Edwards, credit where credit is due, that first taught me the “For-now” component. But the idea there is just that you can comfortably shift your focus to something else, whether it’s the next item to clarify and organise out of your Mind Sweep, or email, or the next project to engage with, you can comfortably change focus and not feel like, “I might be missing something here.” So it’s the antidote or corollary to, “We might be missing something.” And for the big stuff, the Natural Planning Model is a great way to make sure you’re not really missing anything. ‘Cause it’s a really, I don’t wanna say structured, but formalised way of doing brainstorming, spotting gaps, really getting your head around all of the implications of what this bigger thing is. What’s also wonderful about the Natural Planning Model is that it’s really great for interfacing with others, as a common framework for doing this kind of thinking.
06:30 RP: Several brains are better than one always, if you can get those brains working together rather than kind of pulling against each other. So this is a way to align on, “Here’s how we’re gonna think this through.” Right? We’re gonna be thinking about what’s the bigger purpose, what are the potential risks, what are all the components, who needs to be informed about all of this, all of this kind of stuff. We’re gonna lay this out together, spot the gaps, make sure that we’ve got a complete and coherent understanding of what success means. It also creates a lot of buy-in for those people that are actually gonna be pulling the tractor forward to do this stuff. So you know, and the ones that you’ve just mentioned, the acquisition strategy, team vision, those kind of things are also generally best done as a collaborative kind of thing. The kick-off as well as the execution of achieving this is best done collaboratively. So the Natural Planning Model is a big one for me, for the really big stuff and for the collaborative stuff. What about you Todd? What other strategies do you take when you look at something and you go, “The outcome isn’t really self-evident. This feels squishy.” How do you help yourself de-squish?
07:48 TB: Yeah, let’s just dwell on the Planning Model for a minute, because I think it’s a great call. Just for those of you that aren’t familiar with the Planning Model, let’s just give you a very high-level overview of it. And by the way, it’s described in detail in David Allen’s first book. So in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. You’ll find it in chapter three of that book, and it goes… And David goes through it step-by-step. But what the Natural Planning Model does is it gives you a little bit of light structure. That’s kind of the way I think about it. It’s not a heavy… It’s not one of these sort of purpose-built industrial-scale planning models. It allows you, very flexibly and very effectively, to make sure that you’ve thought through all of the elements of your project that might be relevant. So basically, the first thing that… It’s a model in stages, a bit like the Workflow Model, and the first element of the model is, “Have I understood the purpose? Do I know why I’m doing this project?” I say in my seminars, the Level Two seminars where we cover this in detail, I say, “Okay, hands up. Who believes their time is valuable?” Right? Pretty much every hand in the room goes up and then I say, “Okay, well then answer the question, Why are you bothering to do anything at all?” Right? What’s the purpose? What’s… Are you trying to solve a problem? Is there an opportunity?
09:14 TB: And then we talk about the principles. Okay? So what are the rules you’re gonna play by? Who’s on the team? Is there a budget? Is it due by a particular time? What are the sort of rules of engagement of the project? Then we encourage people to look at the desired outcome. What does “Done” look like? And our thinking there is that it’s helpful, especially for these bigger, squishier things, to think through the outcome not just in terms of your own outcome, “What does this give me?” But also, What are the outcomes of the other potential stakeholders? Right? So draw a very rich picture of what the finish line looks like for everybody who has something to do with this project. Now having identified that outcome, what the brain starts very naturally to do is brainstorm because, in essence, what you’ve done by identifying that outcome is you’ve acknowledged that there’s a gap between where you are and where you want to be. And in that moment, your brain very naturally goes, “Okay. Well, that’s where I wanna be. I’m not there right now. What could be relevant that would get me from where I am now to where I wanna go to?” And that’s, again, that’s where brainstorming comes in.
10:19 TB: The brainstorming advice we have is, I think, in line with what a lot of people say, “No judgement. Go for quantity, not quality.” Certainly if you’re doing it in a group, don’t ever say to somebody, “Well, that’s a lousy idea.” Or, “That’ll never work.” Right? You wanna just get down as many ideas as you possibly can. And then, after you’ve done the brainstorm, the model recommends that you go through the process of organising the results of that brainstorm, and the level of organising is really gonna depend… It’ll be driven, I suppose, by the level of squish. Right? So [chuckle] depending on how big, how complex, how risky this is feeling, the more squish the more you might feel the need to plan. Right? So if you’ve got a fairly straightforward project, you might end up with a project plan that’s really nothing more than a bullet list of things that need to happen in a particular sequence. If it’s much more complex, then it might end up being like a Gantt chart, use a piece of software like Microsoft Project or one of that ilk to get the planning done.
11:25 TB: And then, the last thing that the model suggests is identifying next actions. So for each element of the project that you’ve come up with, and by the way, especially as you’re dealing with a project that is quite large in scope, what you might very well find is that there are multiple sub-projects. So what you were thinking of as a project has now got multiple elements, in which case, in this last phase, what you’ll wanna do is make sure that for each one of those elements, those sub-elements of the project, that you’ve got next actions identified. So again, for those of you that weren’t familiar, just a quick sort of spin through the Natural Planning Model. It’s beyond… Obviously it’s beyond identifying just the next action and just the outcome, it gives you more of a framework for ensuring that you’ve come at your squishy thing from all potential helpful angles. That’s the way I like to think about it.
12:20 RP: Yeah, that’s great. And that’s definitely been my experience of it, both with teams and with big individual projects that I’m sort of working on. I think one of the common kind of threads I hear in everything you’re saying, you mentioned any time you identify a gap, your brain hopefully wants to help you fill that gap. And the thing about a gap, is that there’s the starting point where you are now, and there is an end point. So by definition, when you have a gap, when you have a desire, there is an end point always. And the way more and more I like to think of it, is that for every end point there is some manifestation, some physical manifestation that will signal to you that the gap has been closed. And often, that’s either… I find either a physical deliverable, an actual thing that gets created, or produced, or happens. Or it’s behavioural, or it’s some kind of event. Right? One of those three things, or some combination of those three things, signals the gap has been closed, the goal has been achieved.
13:27 RP: So an example I think of that has been kind of squishy actually, that the project definition statement for me, the overarching project is something like, “All associates on the team feel comfortable addressing the implications of this particular type of technology in their seminars.” Right? They all feel comfortable. [chuckle] It’s actually, the outcome is a feeling, is a sense of confidence, is a behavioural ability instilled within those associates. Now there’s sub-projects under that, there’s specific deliverables, there’s white papers to write, there’s people to talk to, there’s consultations to have, there’s future engagements with clients to go out and do, and those are specific, very physical manifestations. But there’s also, the overarching thing is behavioural. Right? So with team vision, for example, it may be that everyone understands the vision, and we’re checking in quarterly to make sure we’re all aligned, and we have some kind of process for reviewing how we do that, to make sure we’re still all aligned with the vision and in touch with it.
14:28 RP: That could de-squish team vision, or for acquisition strategy, we may have some kind of launch event to announce the acquisition strategy, an event, or we may have some kind of deliverable or framework that we’re actively using for the next three evaluations of businesses to acquire, etcetera. So is there a physical thing? Is there a deliverable? Is there a specific event that’s gonna happen that’s gonna cause you to say, “This is done”? Or is there a behaviour that’s gonna change in you or others? That’s demonstrable, that can be seen. Right? And can someone else from outside go, “Yeah, that got finished. That got completed. That got delivered.” If not, you don’t really have a good project definition yet. You need to go back to the Natural Planning Model. You need to go back to doing a brainstorm. You need to go back to, potentially, others to get information about their vision for what “Complete” looks like. Not as a good idea but as an actual manifestation of something in the world that tells you it’s done.
15:33 TB: I think that’s a really good point and a really good reminder. I love the framework, by the way, of sort of classifying the different types of desired outcomes. I think that’s gonna be hugely helpful to folks. I think the other thing is, and I’m gonna get really concrete and practical now for a minute. I think one of the other questions that comes up is, whatever my planning approach is, if I’m generating artefacts as a result of that. Maybe it’s a mind map, maybe it’s a… Again, maybe just an outline, a project outline that gives me kind of high-level tasks, and then lower-level actions within that.
16:10 TB: But whatever it is, “What do I do with all of that?” And I think that’s another question that comes up quite often. I think for a lot of people, I think they prefer to hold on to that information even if it’s fairly rough. Right? Even if it’s just sort of, “Yeah, it’s a page of notes that I wrote out.” That’s not client-ready by any means, but is a valuable artefact, a valuable recording, you know, history of my thinking on this. And if you do decide that you’re going to hold on to that kind of information, I think a really interesting question is, “Where do you keep it in your system?” Right? So in most technologies, if you’ve got a project that’s defined as a task in one piece of software, or whatever it’s called in your software, assuming you’ve got a software system, by the way, that there’s sort of a notes field where a lot of this stuff can go into.
17:16 TB: It’s not so… From my point of view, as a GTD coach, it’s not so much for me about which technology you’re using, it’s, can you… Going back to this idea of, “A good system has clean edges.” Can you point to the place in your system where that kind of project planning material. We sometimes call it project support material. Where does that go in your system? And can you get your hands on it, in the future, in case you need it? So in going through all of this, it sort of comes back to, What distracts me? Or what potentially distracts me about one of these bigger, squishier things. One of the things that could distract me is, “I did all of this thinking, I worked with the team, we ran the project through the Natural Planning Model, we came up with some really good results, we’ve identified next actions in projects. That all feels good. And then, I threw all of that information away, and now I’m distracted because I’m thinking that actually it would have been really helpful to hold on to that. I think I would have been able to make use of it in the future.”
18:15 RP: Yeah, that’s a really good point. Yeah, this sort of reference management isn’t a terribly exciting or scintillating part of the process, but boy, it’ll really get you if you don’t take good care of it. I think part of what I hear in that too, in the whole process of marching toward what was a squishy goal, and now is maybe a bigger thing, like a strategy of some kind, or a vision. Is it kinda the corollary to this whole question we ask people about, “How can you be kind to your future self when you’re clarifying and organising things?” Being kind by making the actions clear, by making the project outcomes a real, visible finish line. It’s something kinda like, “How do you set yourself up for success?” Or, “How do you set yourself and your team up to win in this particular area and way?”
19:14 RP: And so, I think, resource management and reference management is actually a really important part of that. Are we sharing this stuff? Where does it go? What’s some standards of agreement about how we’re gonna find what we need when we need it? ‘Cause I don’t know if you’ve noticed but everyone’s brain is wired differently. And I file stuff under C for car and my wife files it under A for auto, and then we gotta scramble, you know, we gotta scramble through the file drawer to find what we need, come MOT time. So yes, I think all of these things along the way, being able to think about, “Are we set up for success? Are we structured for success?” And it begins, of course, with the de-squishing.
19:54 RP: But as you point out, it doesn’t end there. Because in a way things can… Entropy is like the law of [chuckle] the universe we’re in. And things will re-squish, things will become more ragged, edges will go blur, and melt, and break down, as we go along with this I think too, unless you continue to make sure you de-squish by asking the questions, “How are we storing this stuff? How are we collaborating? What are the principles in play here?” Checking in regularly, all these kinds of things. ‘Cause stuff returns to squishy, and squishy seems like the natural state. [chuckle] At least of my mind, if I don’t put it into the right gear, I don’t know. I don’t know, but I found that too.
20:42 TB: I’m with you on that and I think it’s a really good reminder for me, and maybe for folks that… I’ll go back to the Natural Planning Model for a minute. I introduced it a little while ago as a sequential thing. And it can be used as a sequential thing. Right? If you sort of start at the beginning of a project and say, “Well, we’ve got this particular issue we wanna resolve. Let’s flow things through the Natural Planning Model.” Then you’re just gonna go step-by-step through that, but I think it’s worth remembering that the model can be used, you can dip into any element of the model. If you feel like, for example, your outcome is really clear, so what you need to be able to achieve, what’s the finish line look like. You feel like that’s really clear, but you’re missing something about how you’re gonna make that happen. Well, start at brainstorming. Right? Or if you feel like… Actually we feel like we’ve got all the good ideas out on the table. Sorry, not just the good ideas, we got all the ideas out on the table, but it doesn’t feel like we’re organised to make all of that happen, to take those ideas and help to ensure that they’re leading us toward the creation of some… Of the outcome.
21:52 TB: Then, maybe it’s time to do a little bit of a deeper dive into organising. So generally speaking, when it comes to the Natural Planning Model, if you’re looking for more control, you wanna go, as it were, sequence-wise through the Natural Planning Model. Right? So from purpose and principles through to desired outcome, to brainstorming, to organising, to next actions. And if you’re… What you feel like you’re lacking is a perspective. Right? “Why are we doing this? What’s this all about? Are we all rowing in the same direction?” Then that might encourage you to go back up to the first couple of steps in the model. So yeah, again, and I think it really bears repeating, we… I did the seminar the other day. You and I were talking about this just a minute ago. And what we recommend, right? We do recommend changes in the way that people think about the way that they work, and we recommend… And there’s a methodical sort of approach that lies at the core of Getting Things Done.
22:55 TB: That’s all true, and that’s all important, but I think ultimately the gold standard here is not that you’ve got lists, it’s not that you’ve got a place for your project management to… Sorry, project support material. The gold standard is, “Is this off my mind?” Right? “Have I done the thinking through that gets me there?” And I don’t care what approach you’re taking, if you get to that, you’re in a good place. That’s what we’re trying to create. So again, it’s just I suppose a bit of encouragement for those of you who are feeling like, “Yeah, I’ll find, but I don’t feel like my lists are in a good place, based on what I’ve heard you talk about in terms of GTD.” Ultimately my goal is gonna be, “Hey, are these things off your mind?” If that’s the case, then you’re in a good place.
23:46 RP: Yeah, yeah, great point. And great to bring it back to the spirit of this thing, because people can often beat themselves up with the details of it. One little thing that’s maybe not so little, that occurs to me about all of this, to mention too, is that sometimes things are squishy because of our relationship to committing to them as squishy. And if that’s the case, if you’re not really actively committed to it, or you shouldn’t be actively committed to it, you just mentioned the wants-to-do things. And for me, all the wants-to-do things that are sort of nice ideas, that aren’t really active commitments. Those properly belong on my someday-maybe list. Those don’t belong on a project list as a squishy thing that I’m halfway committed to, but not really. They’ll drain my energy, they’ll drain my sense of focus and purpose away every time I look at them. So make sure you’re committed and make sure your team is committed. Right?
24:43 RP: And make sure that this really is the priority for… Well, we’re coming into 2020. Right? For this coming year rather than, “Oh, we really ought to. We really ought to develop this such and such a strategy.” But the reality is, all your resources are pointed toward executing on the strategy that you’ve already put in place, and it’s actually going pretty well but, “You ought to.” “I think we should.” Or, “I want to.” Or, “Maybe.” Get clear with those things. You know? The first order of clarity is not, “What’s the finish line there?” The first order of clarity is, “Are we really committed to this in the first place?” ‘Cause if not, no amount of clarity on what ought to be, is gonna actually motivate you, when the reality is… If you’re just really, really honest with yourself, and the team, and the resources available, that should be shelved this year, that should be on the table next year.
25:31 TB: I think it’s such a good point Robert, and it’s just, I suppose, a reminder of the fact that, we talk sometimes about the fact that this work is not for the faint of heart. Right? If you get involved in this methodology, if you sort of take on board the principles and follow them, you’re gonna be face-to-face with all of your commitments. Right? All of your commitments are going to be staring right back at you, and at that point, I think, there can be some really challenging thoughts and if you’re involving other people, challenging conversations to have. “Have I got too much on?” Right? “Is this really deliverable, for me as an individual?” And likewise for the team. Right? Is the portfolio of outcomes that we’ve committed to in the next year, or the next six months, whatever the timeframe is. Is that a doable thing?
26:30 TB: And that’s not… And our goal there is not that you create an organisation which isn’t ambitious and isn’t trying to achieve the things that you think are really important. It’s making sure that what you haven’t done is lay out a smorgasbord which is so, so vast that by the end of the year, there’s just no way all of these things are gonna get done, and therefore you’re gonna end up being demotivated and demoralised by the fact that you said, “Yeah, we’re gonna get these 82 things done in the 52 weeks, and we’ve got a team of three people and yeah, absolutely, we’ll get that done.” And then you look back at it six months in, nine months in and you go, “There’s just absolutely no way.” So again, it’s just… The idea there is, yeah, be ambitious, be… Strive for over-achievement, yeah, by all means, but also be realistic enough that you’re not setting yourself up to demotivate yourself and your team.
27:36 RP: Yeah, definitely. I always crack up when people, I’m in conversation with them and they say, “Oh, I’ll try to get that to you tomorrow.” Or, “I’ll try to do this.” Or, “I’ll try to do that.” 95% of the time when they say, “I’ll try to blah, blah, blah,” it doesn’t happen that day, or in that timing, or in the way that they said it would. But I don’t think I’ve ever met a GTDer that uses that language, that says, “I’m gonna try to whatever.” They all follow Yoda’s sage advice, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Yeah. [chuckle] It’s funny but I hope… So yes, but I think we should probably wrap this up. Parting thoughts, top tips to help de-squish the squishy stuff in your life, and get it moving, and feel good about it, and be kind to your future self. Todd?
28:24 TB: At the very highest level, number one. Do the level of planning to keep planning until you feel like you’ve gotten it off your mind, and involve the right people. Right? So involve… If it’s a planning process that you just can do by yourself, that’s fine. If it’s something that needs to involve other folks, great, make sure that they’re involved. And then, thirdly, just in terms of the actual… The holding on to the information that you’ve created, the artefacts as they say, that you’ve created during that process. Just know where those are gonna go. Right? So that you don’t have to have the stress that, “Yeah, I’m not gonna be able to,” in a sense, “Stand on the shoulders of my own thinking, when I get two weeks, two months, two years down the road on this project.” If you’re gonna need to refer back to those artefacts, then make sure you know where they’re gonna be kept in your system. I don’t know, What about you?
29:18 RP: No, great stuff, yeah. And I would say, to recap, make sure that you’re really committed to it. Make sure that it’s legit. That that’s not part of why the squishiness is there. As you say, ask yourself the hard questions. This isn’t for the faint of heart, but the alternative isn’t really a good one, at all. Getting clear and getting sharp about this stuff feels great, releases energy, makes you a more effective person. And I think kinda the other thing on all of this is, remember that there are always gonna be some manifestation of the squishy thing, that’s gonna tell you the squishy thing is A, no longer squishy, and B, ultimately, when you manifest it, it’s done. So that could be tangible, that could be behavioural, or that could be event-based. But something’s gonna happen. Something’s gonna be true, that ain’t true yet. [laughter] So that’s what it’s saying. That’s gonna signal to you that this is done. So to me, that’s the definition of “No longer squishy,” is that you’ve identified at least one of those things.
30:22 RP: Great stuff, thanks everyone for being with us. As always, be sure to subscribe to the podcast, on audio, whatever your preferred audio method is. If you’re watching this on YouTube please do give us a click on the Subscribe button. We do this pretty regularly, and we’d love also to get your comments and thoughts. So firstname.lastname@example.org is the place to shoot your thoughts, and comments, and questions. As you can tell, we do address these pretty regularly, and really enjoy it. Hopefully, this was useful to you, and inspires you to go off and, “Do or do not” a bit more, and try a bit less. And it’s been certainly my pleasure, and on behalf of Todd. Thanks for listening, thanks for watching, thanks for being with us, and we’ll see you next time.