Planning Right: The Problem

Imagining your future is usually right brained: your creative center generates a story for a future that could plausibly happen. It hits the highlights, and it puts magical arrows between them as if one event leads inexorably to the next. Get into MIT, start a successful company with your smart roommates, and retire early to a country that you can’t pronounce the name of.

But the arrows are wrong. They skip important chunks of the story, and you generated the whole thing backwards anyway.

It turns out that right brained planning uses the same cognitive process as creating a fictional story. When you generate the narrative that leads you from your present situation to your goal, your brain works backward, inventing events and circumstances that fit together like the plot of movie.

It’s a story that makes perfect sense: if you heard that it actually happened you would believe it. People go to MIT and get rich all the time, so we’re told.

But a story isn’t a plan, and the problem is that just because a story “makes sense” in retrospect doesn’t mean it’s likely to happen and it doesn’t mean you know how to make it happen.

Planning Left: The Solution

I was starting to get an inkling of this problem when I was still writing about my attempt to climb the ranks of a company and cash out when I pushed them into an IPO. My plan to have a big exit for at least $2 million wasn’t really a plan at all: it was just a story.

To solve my problem I invented Goal Mapping*. A goal map is literally a map that contains the exact steps to get from where you are now to your goal. I started by simply making a flow chart:

Flowchart of Ken Sharpe's Goal

Click to Enlarge

Goal Maps have:

  • Boxes that represent events, actions, or goals.
  • Arrows pointing from one box to the next.
  • Box colors representing the influence you have over the events and actions on the map.
    • Green means you have control
    • Red means you have no control
    • Green with Red means you have some control
    • Yellow marks a goal node

Also notice:

  • There are multiple paths to the end goal, and the nodes are subjective. You can be as detailed or as general as you want, and you can add as many alternate paths as your creative mind can generate.
  • You should always prefer green paths over which you have a lot of control. If each step along your path is determined by outside forces, you are doomed to fail. If each step is firmly within your grasp, then you’re guaranteed to succeed.
  • There are events over which you have only partial control. You can see the green block that represents getting the infrastructure project working really well. It has a red outline—that was my way of saying that I have influence, but not direct control over that event. Those are better than red blocks, but not as good as green blocks.
  • It’s okay to admit that you don’t actually know the steps between one node an another. It’s very much to your advantage to mark the cloudy areas because those blocks are similar to red blocks in that you’re not sure what will happen in them. Without those blocks the connection between two events might look like smooth sailing, when it’s actually a quagmire.

If you know my story, you’ll recognize the path on the top of that flow chart as my original plan, and path going down the middle as very nearly what I ended up doing.

The act of making this flow chart forced me to create a plan out of my story. Here’s how it helped:

  • I used it to see the missing steps. The story went: “fix the company to become the CTO.” Fix what? How? How do I get a promotion after that?
  • I used it to see the improbability of the steps that were there. Even if I could become the CTO of the company, would I get stock options? Would they be enough? Would the company be bought or go public as I hoped? I had no way to know and no control over any of it!
  • I used it to generate contingency plans. When I saw how terrible my story was when it tried to be a plan, I generated other options that turned out to be better.
  • I was ahead of the game with a goal already in mind, but Goal Mapping can also help you set and work toward clear and explicit goals instead of floundering with only a notion of where you want to be.

Goal Mapping Software

It’s possible to build a goal map with any tool you want, including paper and a pencil. I created my original goal map above in an open source flow chart application called Dia. Anything can work, but I always wished there was software that:

  • Focused on making it easy to make nodes with text, instead of on crazy graphics and colors.
  • Colored the boxes based on how much control I had over the event, so I could visualize the probabilities in my map without tweaking individual boxes.
  • Told me what my best path was, based on the map I built. Bonus points if it could tell me my exact probability of success by taking that path.

No software like that existed. Now it does.

Barely Visible Screen Capture, Tah dah!

Building a goal map used to be a cumbersome process, but in the next week I’ll release an early version of the goal mapping software I’ve been building over the last two weeks. It’s free and web based, so there’s nothing to buy or download. I’ll give you the link, you’ll build a goal map.

It’s useful in its current state, but I’m hoping to get feedback from those who use it so I can make a tool that will stand the test of time as an intuitive and useful way to plan for the future.

Exciting things are coming up!

UPDATE: My Goal Mapping has been released! Check out this post for details.


  • I’m aware that Brian Mayne of Lift International has something called Goal Mapping also. It’s not the same thing. I didn’t know about Brian when I originally created the technique years ago, and I agonized over what to change the name to now, but in the end the name is just too perfect: it’s literally a map you follow to the goals you set. It’s a goal map. What else could it be?