Each of us has a project, a job, or a vision we want to be a success. And some of us are wise enough to know that the first critical step on the path towards success is to have a plan. A good plan is a good thing - that is, until it isn't.

Any innovator worth her salt will tell you that simply having a plan, even a great one, is never enough. It's a lesson as old as time. As the joke goes, "Want to make God laugh? Tell him you've got a plan." It's also a warning we religiously toss aside. Though some seem to understand that skipping the plan altogether is a surefire recipe for failure, even the wise too often miss that over-reliance on any plan is a surer, greater, and more painful way to fail.

In planning for one of the most important projects of my life, writing my first book, I was forcefully reminded of this lesson. The moment was raw and dicey, but the experience eventually taught me a 5-step practice that increase the odds of success no matter who you are or what you hope to achieve. But first, there was that reminder about the limits of a plan I received in an interview with food innovator and founder of the famed restaurant Chez Panisse, Alice Waters.

The Inevitable Limits Of A Plan

For my first book I wanted everything to be right, including the interviews I did with some of the most successful entrepreneurs and innovators in the world. So I prepared like mad before each one, researching, developing questions, and gathering page after page of notes. It was a good plan - until it wasn't, as Alice bluntly and fortuitously reminded me.

I'd reached out to Alice because she'd famously launched a series of ideas around food, agriculture, education and the environment, some huge successes, others less so. Each surely carried vital insights about entrepreneurial success, or so I'd assumed before our call. But immediately after the 'nice to meet you' and 'thanks for doing this' chit chat, Alice said, "Look, I don't know anything about entrepreneurship, but if you still want to talk to me, have at it."

Nine pages of prep notes went up in a puff of smoke, and all my questions for her were basically toast. For a few endless seconds, I felt adrift. But the next two hours of conversation that followed proved to be one of the most valuable of the more than 200 I had. No doubt the content was great, but the moment redefined every part of every project I've done since. It was a lesson in success, innovation, and in adaptability that have become my 5-step playbook. Interestingly, every one of those successful innovators I interviewed follows some version of it. If you want to increase your odds of success, you should too.

5 Steps To Raising Your Odds Of Success

  1. Prepare. Preparation isn't about a promised outcome. It's simply training for what's possible. In every way, what you face in any future scenario is always bigger than you, what you can imagine, and what you can directly plan for. But preparation and planning put you in the zone, ignite your thinking, and increase your readiness. You simply must do it, but don't ask more of preparation and planning than they can deliver.
  2. Shut Up. Once you've prepared, zip it. To paraphrase interviewer god Larry King, "You never learn anything while you're talking." Though it was admittedly accidental with Alice, being silent taught me a powerful lesson. After Alice snuffed out my plan and I picked my jaw up from off the floor, I said, "Fine, you don't know anything about entrepreneurship - what then is the most valuable thing you've learned across all the ventures you've launched, successful or failed?" And then I shut up. It was partly because I had no plan for what to say next. But the silence revealed one of the most valuable insights about human beings - our natural inclination is to fill empty space. When we instead allow someone else to use that space we learn. We learn what they think and what ideas they have. We exit our own echo chamber. We even gain a chance to objectively confirm or deny the value and validity of what we think we know. In short, we refine and prepare anew and in so doing, increase our odds of success.
  3. Listen. There's a subtle insight in the last step that deserves to be its own step: the benefit of being silent only accrues if you listen. Openly listening is one of the most important and underrated tools any founder, leader, or anyone can have. If you're too busy fretting about your plan gone awry or crafting your next response you simply can't hear or learn.
  4. Improvise. Listening let's you see too - a world beyond what you know and beyond your plan. Sometimes the view is inspiring. Other times it's daunting. Always it offers opportunity. But you have to look and listen for it, and then you have to let yourself play with that opportunity. Like preparation, improvisation isn't about perfection. It's playing with possibilities and training to extract value. In performance improv they often talk about "saying yes" to whatever's thrown at you. Typically we train to say "no". More than a technique for the stage, improvisation is one of the greatest tools of advancement and innovation in the human toolkit.
  5. Repeat. If you think you can run through these steps once and you're done, you missed the lesson. The power lies in the habit of repeating the steps, gradually infusing them into every part of your thinking and doing. Arguably, this last step is the most important. It's time to make it part of your plan.