How To Prioritize After a Conference

Action Plan ScreenshotYesterday I returned from MicroConf Europe 2017 and my head has been full of ideas from the conference talks.

Today I spent the day compiling all of the ideas and prioritizing what to act on first. My result was an action plan and a prioritized list of projects.

Since I heard others at the conference wondering what to do first, I thought it would be helpful to write about my process.

This post also serves as an example of the tools that I’m developing for Strategic Life Tools to help others do self-guided life coaching to plan and design their life (though most tools will be less complicated than this one).

If you’re interested in using tools like this to improve your life, sign up on the early access list.

My Process

The process I used had 4 stages:

  1. Scan & Tag
    Scan through all of my notes and tag the ideas that are important.
  2. Compile
    Type or copy the idea into a central action plan.
  3. Strategize
    Develop criteria for how I plan to evaluate the list of potential ideas.
  4. Analyze
    Evaluate each idea against the criteria.

For each stage, I processed everything before moving on to the next stage. This helped me stay in the same mental context, which allowed me to process ideas faster and ensured consistency with how I evaluated the ideas.

My notes from the conference came from:

  • Moleskin Notebook
    Most of my conference notes were taken in a bound notebook. At previous conferences, I’ve used a laptop, but decided this time to try something different.
  • Index Cards
    Outside the talks, I took notes on index cards kept in a pocket index card holder. These included notes from talking to others and ideas that popped into my head while walking around.
  • Starred Slack Items
    Anything I wanted to review in Slack, I starred to review it later.

In the past, these often get thrown in a drawer when I returned from the conference or otherwise forgotten about. I’ve learned I need to set aside time to process my learnings afterwards. I had scheduled today as that day for me.

1. Scan & Tag

When taking notes during the conference, I don’t try to evaluate whether they would be good to implement. I aim to listen and learn, keeping my brain out of analytical mode. Thus the first step I did was to scan through all of my notes and tag anything that might be a good idea.

I tagged ideas on paper by highlighting them with a highlighter. When I’ve used Word to take notes in the past, I’ve used the highlighter tool there to highlight my notes.

To help me manage the list of ideas, I used four highlighter colors based on when I expected the idea to be relevant to be:

  • Next
    Ideas to work on immediately or in the next month.
  • Soon 
    Ideas to work on after the next month, up to 4 months out.
  • Later
    Ideas to work on after 4 months, up to a year out.
  • Future
    Ideas to work on in more than a year.

Because it’s so close to the end of the year, I defined Next to be tasks to start before the end of the year.

When I tagged ideas, the only thing I did was scan my notes and highlight them with one of the colors. This helped me keep in mind what each color stood for, and allowed me to get everything tagged quickly.

An example of a page from my notebook afterwards is:

Highlighted Notes

2. Compile

Once I had everything tagged, I switched into compile mode. For this I used a Word document divided into one section for each timeframe from the last step. To that, I added groupings for three types of ideas:

  • To Do
    Potential projects and tasks to execute.
  • To Answer
    Relevant questions about my business to answer that require thought or experiments.
  • To Remember
    Insights that aren’t directly actionable, but will be relevant later for a project or task.

I use nested bullet points to keep track of the main idea and its supporting information and ideas. For the outer bullet point this time, I chose a checkbox, keeping me in the mode of action items.

To do this exercise yourself, download the template Conference Action Plan I created, or check out my completed MicroConf Europe 2017 Action Plan.

3. Strategize

Next I developed a system for evaluating ideas. I started by creating a set of dimensions that I could use when evaluating and scoring ideas to determine the most important.

Then I assigned weights to each dimension based on what is important to me in my business currently and created a scoring system for scoring ideas based on those dimensions.

I also created a Word template for evaluating ideas. I wound up using a spreadsheet instead, but the Word template helped me think through how I wanted to structure my analysis. If you want to try using the template, you can download the Project Prioritization Worksheet.

Create Planning Dimensions

I divided my dimensions into three groups: benefits, costs and risks. Technically risks are a type of cost, but I like to keep them separate so I can evaluate and mitigate risks separate from costs.

BENEFITS
  • Subscribers
    Will this idea increase the quantity or quality of people subscribing to my e-mail lists or joining my Strategic Life Mastermind Facebook group? Will this idea increase the rate at which people join?
  • Leads
    Will this idea increase the quantity or quality of people joining my sales funnel? Will this idea increase the rate at which they become leads?
  • Revenue
    Will this idea increase my revenue, either on a one-time or recurring basis? This includes ideas which convert leads to customers, increase the conversion rate of leads to customers or increase upsells.
  • Insight
    Will this idea teach me specific ways to do the next ideas better, or general ways to improve my entire business at a foundational level?
  • Assets
    Will this idea result in assets like articles, e-books, keywords lists, etc that I can reuse in the future, or which can be added into the site as a potential product?
COSTS
  • Time
    How much of my own effort will this take? Once I have a team, how much of my team’s effort will this take? If I am outsourcing or delegating, how much management effort will it take?
  • Money
    How much money will it cost? These are costs specific to the idea including direct costs such as buying software & services or advertising and personnel costs such as hiring contractors. At the moment, my fixed costs are low, so I’m didn’t evaluate indirect costs like rent, hosting, etc.
  • Energy
    How excited am I do to this idea? Will this idea increase or reduce my energy for doing other projects? Once I have a team, how excited and energetic would it be for the team? Would it boost or reduce morale?
  • Focus
    How easy will it be for me to stay focused? Will I need to switch between different mental contexts frequently, potentially opening myself up for distraction or context switching costs? How much will it leverage what I’m already doing in my business?
  • Learning
    How much effort will I need to acquire new knowledge or skills to execute this idea?
RISKS
  • Alignment
    How related is this idea to what I am already doing in my business? Does it reinforce my existing efforts or do I risk getting too scattered in my projects?
  • Commitment Level
    How much do I need to commit on an ongoing basis if I start this idea, or can this be one on a one-off basis? What are the consequences if I stop doing an on-going idea (e.g. start a blog, then let it go stale)?
  • Execution Risk
    How experienced am I or is the person doing the idea? What outside dependencies exist that are not within my control that could derail the idea?
  • Risk Isolation
    How isolated is the idea from the rest of the business? If it fails, will that failure remain contained or cascade throughout the rest of the business?
  • Failure Consequences
    What are the consequences of failure? Are there ongoing costs after the failure occurs (e.g. damage to a brand) or does the failure just have a one-time cost (e.g. shutting down the idea)?

Not all of these are risks in the classic sense, but they are risks from the perspective of how I decided to evaluate my ideas today.

Develop Weights & Scoring

Once I had my dimensions defined, I assigned weights on a scale of 1-10 based on the importance of that dimension to my business. I then created a scoring system to rate ideas on those dimensions.

The scoring system had 5 levels that determined the amount of benefit, cost or risk:

  • Extra Low
  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
  • Extra High

For each dimension, I created written descriptions of what these levels meant. This allowed me to standardize (somewhat) how I was evaluating each idea on these dimensions. For instance, for the Time dimension, I used the amount of effort required before the end of the year:

  • Extra Low
    Up to 1 hour of effort, no management time at all
  • Low
    Between 1-4 hours of effort, or up to 1 hour of management time
  • Medium
    Between 4 hours and 1 day of effort, or 1-2 hours of management time
  • High
    Between 1 day and 1 week of effort, or between 2 hours and 1 day of management time
  • Extra High
    Over a 1 week of effort or over 1 day of management time

I still made gut guesses on how the ideas rated on each dimension, but the written descriptions helped me calibrate my gut. The written descriptions were customized to me and where I am in my business right now.

While the same idea could have multiple outcomes, depending on how its executed and external factors, for this exercise I tried to guess what would happen in the most likely scenario.

To allow the scoring system to be used with my analysis, I assigned weights to each scoring level.

I originally used weights from 1-5, but it soon became obvious that this wasn’t creating the right scores. An Extra High idea was more than 5x the effort of a Extra Low idea. So I switched to using multiples of 2 (we’re geeks, right?), with Extra Low having a weight of 1 and Extra High having a weight of 16.

4. Analyze Ideas

My final step was to develop a spreadsheet that I could use to enter, rate and sort ideas to identify the ones that were most relevant for my business.

Enter Ideas

First I entered all of the ideas, coming up with short title for each. I also included the business category, because, when managing my time, I’ll often segment my days into Marketing days, Infrastructure days, etc.

Rate Ideas

After all the ideas were entered, then I started rating ideas. I did this by rating every idea for a single dimension before moving onto the next dimension. This helped me keep the scoring system I developed in my head, allowing me to rate the ideas faster and more consistently. In Excel, it’s also fast to move down a column doing data entry.

Score Ideas

Once I had entered ratings for all of the dimensions for each idea, I created a Total Score column to rate each idea. This was a weighted sum where an idea’s score weight for a dimension was multiplied by the dimension weight and each multiplied result was added together. Benefit values had positive values and costs & risks had negative values.

For instance, a simplified formula might look like:

(Revenue Score * Revenue Weight) - (Cost Score * Cost Weight) - (Alignment Score * Alignment Weight)

I did this using lookup tables to make the weights configurable, so the actual formula in Excel looks pretty gnarly (I actually edited it in Sublime).

Since the Total Score as a raw value made it hard to see how ideas compared relatively to one another, I created a Score Index, which was a normalized version of the total score. The formula was:

(Total Score - Minimum Total Score) / (Maximum Total Score - Minimum Total Score) * 100

Where the minimum and maximum total score were calculated from all of the ideas with a value in the Total Score column.

Sort Ideas

Finally, I sorted the spreadsheet by the Score Index column to get a prioritized list of the ideas.

Note: Because I used an extra header row in my Excel spreadsheet, I needed to highlight all the rows I wanted to sort starting at row 2 before pressing the Sort button. If you use my template below, you’ll have to do the same.

The Results

Figuring out my customer drivers came up as the top result–which makes sense, since it will have a broad impact throughout my business and is a key insight needed to effectively acquire subscribers, leads and customers.

My next step is to enter existing projects and other potential ideas from before the conference, so I can evaluate all of my potential tasks holistically, and develop a prioritized plan for the next couple months.

In doing this exercise, I also realized my dimensions were not optimal, so I may iterate on these as well.

Downloadable Templates

If you want to try this exercise on your own, you can download the templates I created:

While the links are embedded above, to make it easier, you can download examples of how I filled these out:

Finally, if you like this approach to planning, and are interested in tools like this for envisioning and planning your life goals–or just changes to your life right now–check out my new business Strategic Life Tools that will be launching later this month. Not all of the tools are this complicated, I promise.

If you have comments or questions about my process or the templates, please post them below.

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