Recently, I wrote an article that quoted the famous line by Lao-Tzu, and I stand by that article. To begin any journey, you have to take the first step. Procrastinating or thinking about doing it “someday” accomplishes nothing. But I didn’t mean you should just go charging down the road.
At one point early in The Lord of the Rings, Sam said to Frodo, “If I take one more step, I’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.” They had taken a single step on a long and arduous journey. But that journey took much longer than it should have. Because they didn’t do the one thing they should have done before ever leaving The Shire. And as Boromir tried to point out, “One does not simply walk into Mordor.”
They had no plan.
Just because some wizard stops by and tells you to take a ring of power to Mount Doom, doesn’t mean you should just pick it up and head out the door. You need a plan. And while I think there is definitely a point at which you can plan too much, for the most part, the more detailed the plan, the better.
The problem with a journey or project of any significant size is it can seem overwhelming. Walk all the way across Middle Earth and destroy the ring in Mount Doom is a daunting task. But leave the Shire and take the ferry to Buckland is pretty simple. Any hobbit could do it.
So, the first step in every journey or project should be to break it down into smaller and smaller chunks. It is an iterative process that should continue until each step is a small, finite, and manageable task.
Even if you don’t know the project’s entire scope, start with what you do know and break it down to that point. For the hobbits, the first significant step was getting to Rivendell. But for a couple of guys that had never left the neighborhood, that in itself is a big project. So, break that down further.
- Get to Buckland
- Pass the Old Forest
- Get to Bree, etc.
Each of those is broken further until each is a small task. Get to Buckland would be broken down into:
- Head east from The Shire
- Walk to the Brandywine River
- Catch the Ferry, etc.
Now, as the two hobbits slip on their packs and leave Bag End, instead of being faced with Walk to Mount Doom, they have the task of heading east from The Shire. One simple step that can be easily accomplished.
Many project management tools can help you create a plan like this. They are full of helpful tools like Gantt charts and timetables. But frequently, the making of the plan can take longer than the execution. Or worse, the planning becomes a delaying tactic to avoid the job. If your job is to throw the One Ring of Power into the fiery pits of Mount Doom, I can understand your hesitation, but if it’s deploying a new network or create next years’ sales plan, not so much.
Here is a simpler method I used successfully for the last twenty years of my job. It worked with projects of any size and was self-scaling. I started with Microsoft Word using the Outline View. It’s not as straightforward as it used to be, as Microsoft has made it more graphical and a bit more complicated to use. Shocker, right?
But back then, you would enter your primary task(s), and it would show at the highest level, denoted by large Roman numerals.
I) Get to Rivendell.
I would lay out all the known significant milestones at that level. Then I would go back and drill down to the next level under all of the top level steps.
I) Get to Rivendell
A) Get to Buckland
B) Pass the Old Forest
C) Get to Bree, etc.
Then, I would continue drilling down under each heading one level at a time until I couldn’t break things down any further. However deeply nested, each line was a single task, preferably one that could be done in less than a day.
Next, I would cut and paste the entire outline into the first column of a spreadsheet. Across the top was whatever unit of time made sense, hours, days, or weeks. Then I took each line item and, using an estimated time for each task, created my version of a Gantt chart. I could even work in dependencies if I needed to.
This method wasn’t as sophisticated as using MS Project, the market leader at that time, but it was much faster and easier. And once you had everything in the spreadsheet, it could easily be modified and adapted. If, say, materials weren’t shipped on time or Ogres captured you, it was a simple thing to extend or alter the timeline.
Another advantage was that the spreadsheet was quickly shared and understood. Whether you needed to bring a team of nine up to speed in Rivendell, or a group of ninety spread out across Middle Earth, a spreadsheet was an easy email attachment and understood more readily by the masses than all the moving parts in a proper project management package.
Now, of course, project management has evolved, and I use a tool such as ClickUp to handle ongoing projects, but I still follow the basic pattern I did when I ran a large IT department. Break each project into smaller and smaller pieces until each one is a simple, single task easily defined and accomplished.
Every journey begins with a single step, but if you have a good plan first, you know that the first step is in the right direction.