Every plan, whether it’s a long-term strategic, yearly operating, or a defined-term project plan must be grounded in clear, measurable, long-term objectives. These objectives set the course of the plan. However, the plan’s success depends primarily on how you manage the short-term objectives, or action plans. This is a practical guide for how to balance the two.
What does “long-term” and “short-term” mean in a plan? What are the elements of both, and why can you not achieve one without the other?
Long-term objectives are a fancy term for goals; they describe the paths forward with defined endpoints and measures of success. Goals must be clear, concise and compelling as they are needed to engage a team and other stakeholders such as customers, other departments or teams, or even shareholders. Long-term objectives are definitive statements of your commitments. Once you make these commitments, you become accountable for them.
Short-term objectives are the action plans that define the implementation path and determine the success or failure of the long-term objectives, and of the plan itself. Why do they determine success or failure? While there is no substitute for clever thinking when creating long-term objectives (and strategies), they are projections of a future state. People are notoriously bad at predicting the future, even with data and AI, and given the temptation to create “stretch goals” to impress stakeholders or investors, which then become commitments, things can get dicey when the future becomes the present.
The action plans are the only work that actually gets done in a plan. Therefore, the only control you have in the outcomes, and your only opportunity to change course if your predictions are wrong, happens with the confines of your action plans.
Action plans, being short-term, are the antithesis of predicting the future. They are practical, tactical, and if written correctly, no longer than 30-90 day projects. This coincides with our most accurate view of the future. If a particular action plan or project will take longer to complete, say 6-9 months, we recommend breaking this into shorter projects that can be more easily managed and kept on track. If the action plan is a year plus, it is most likely highly complex and merits its own plan with long- and short-term objectives.
Action plan essentials include:
- a project definition
- the work that needs to be done
- who the work is assigned to
- the deadlines and milestones
- the resources required to reach them (i.e., people, tools, and budget).
Every action plan must contain this combination of definitions, dates, accountabilities, and resources. This is so that the people responsible for the action plan understand clearly their mission.
What does this mean to you as a leader?
First, by understanding the clear distinction and relationships between these two vital management tools, you are able to clearly define and prioritize two critical leadership strategies: communication and accountability.
Of course, the more open and clear the communication, the less confusion to contend with. And clear accountability is one of the bedrocks of engagement; everyone needs to know where they are headed. However, there are clear constituencies with differing interests in both of these factors when it comes to long- and short-term objectives.
Regarding long-term objectives, the team shares accountability for reaching the goal, however it is the leader who is most accountable to and will be held responsible for the goal by stakeholders outside the team.
Clear, concise and compelling communication of the direction and expected results rules the day with the team; they need to clearly understand the mission if they are going to commit to it. Beware of cloudy thinking and opaque communication to your team; you will regret it as soon as you publish the plan.
Clear and concise (and probably not as compelling) communication rules the day with the other stakeholders; they need to know what you’ve committed to and are most interested in the results. Beware of over- or under-committing to stakeholders; your enthusiasm or sandbagging may not have the backing of your team.
Regarding short-term objectives, your stakeholders are the team itself. As mentioned above, this is the work that needs to be done and this is where your communication should focus and focus on the team. As above, any lack of clarity will produce either shoddy results or heroic firefighting, both of which have significant negative impacts on engagement. And it is within the short-term objectives where the real accountabilities lie for the team. While the goal is important, the work is critical—if it does not happen, the goal is unreachable.
When it comes to balance, a clear goal needs successful execution in order to be achieved, and every action plan needs a clear goal as a beacon and motivating force for the teams involved in completing it. For the leader, balancing these tools and strategically deploying them sets up the journey to success for every plan.