Mastering The Action Cycle

by Murray Johannsen (2014). Feel free to connect with the author by  Linkedin,  Google+, or by email. First Published on Aug. 17, 2014

Your future depends on the expertise and skills you have. Those who fail to think about the future will not have one. Skill mapping is a way to chart your course into a prosperous 21st Century.

Getting results counts in government and business.  If you can’t best be a professor or a consultant. We teach this as a cycle that one runs over and over. Getting better at it each time it’s run.

“How you climb a mountain is more important than reaching the top.” ― Yvon Chouinard

On the journey of life, too many people are stuck, running in place, getting nowhere. Unlike the great heroes of yore written about by Homer, Ovid, and Virgil, they live lives of quiet desperation.

Most business books focused on getting results assume you are like a fly caught in the spider web of bureaucracy. All you have to do is follow a magic sauce of four to six principles to magically escape this bureaucratic straight jacket. 

This approach is different. It’s about generating a vision for yourself — your career and your life – yours, not the bosses, not the corporations, not your parents, yours.

It gets into the guts of how to get high-quality results with spot-on strategy, efficient personal processes, and continuous self-improvement. It should be common sense, but common sense is rather uncommon. 

To do this, you must:

  • Understand the nature of strategy to develop your ability to think strategically.
  • Follow and continually improve a process designed to deliver results, and
  • Deal with the problems of Ego limiting forward progress.

This boils down to: 


Schlieffen Plan.svg Define Your Master Plan
Before WWI, one of the more famous military plans was devised by the German general staff under von Schlieffen to quickly get German forces through France. However, his successor Moltke modified the plan, weakening the right flank, the French rallied and so began the great killer of young men known as trench warfare.

“When your strategic thinking is shallow and near-sighted, then what you gain by your calculations is little, so you lose before you do battle.” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War 

The essence of getting better results is putting a robust process in place that you can use that generates traction for you month after month. And to do that, you must continually improve your Self and process. 

You learn a method you can apply, not for or six principles that are supposed to always work independently of situation and context. 

Continuous Process Improvement

This image represents a classic model from the days of Total Quality Management known as the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. It was a basic conceptual approach to process improvement. But like many simple and powerful ideas, it was implemented properly. Image by Karn-b

“If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.” — W. Edwards Deming 

First, to get consistent results from your plan of action, you need to put in place a system, a well-defined process. For if you put in place a process, then you can find out what not working.

This is not a static process, one cast in concrete. No everything about the Action Cycle is going to work. One needs to learn and practice continuous process improvement month after month. But that is not enough. One must also focus on continuous personal improvement — entering the realm of self-mastery. 

Driving Toward  Self-Mastery

Vicente López y Portaña (1772–1850): Sueño de San José, Museo del Prado

“Most people travel through life with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake.”  — Author’s Observation 

What psychologists understand and management gurus ignore is that flawed individuals cannot flawlessly execute. Those hidden flaws act like weeds in the garden of the mind preventing you from doing what’s really important.

The advantage of using the Action Cycle for 30-days, it brings light into the hidden areas. You can’t hide your psychological blocks, procrastination, and self-destructive tendencies.

Life gives you a lot more control than you think, as long as you continually figure out how to better use your mind.

This requires a clear understanding of where you are going and the dogged determination to continue, no matter how difficult until you get there. 

Two Fundamental Assumptions This Action Planning Approach

1. Your Life NOT Your Work

Many good books focus on getting things done in a large bureaucratic organization (Bossidy, 2011) and (McChesney, et. al., 2012. In fact, there are numerous recent books about getting things done if you are working within a large organization, Horwath, (2014), McChesny et. al., (2012), Mellon & Carter, (2013), Kotter, (2014), Thean, (2014) and Stack, (2014).

 While this puts a smile on the face of stockholders and c-level executives with stock options, it doesn’t do much to enhance YOUR personal and business life. It’s time to give yourself an edge that you can use.

With such a laser-like focus on the organization, what gets lost are the needs of the individual. And you can get better results in your personal life and professional life, you can translate the same methods and lessons learned to work.

For More InformationOn Life and Work Balance

It is only 10 minutes and this short talk is definitely worth watching. It deals with work-life balance and how to achieve a life of happiness.

This is one of the few books designed you get the most out of life. This is a book about getting done you want to do, not about doing what the bosses want. It’s an individual process designed to improve your ability to execute on key elements of your personal, work, and spiritual life. 

2. Theory You can Apply

So much of what we see today is a theory you cannot practice and cannot apply. This was also true in the days of Jonathan Swift (1667 to 1745). 

Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels to lampoon the powerful institutions of the day. He managed to avoid jail and getting hanged by writing it in allegory. One of these allegorical stories concerned the nature of the university, an observation that still applies today. The story goes.

Gulliver happened to see an island in the blue sky. Visiting the people of Lagado, he found that the King had invested a large fortune to build an Academy that might advance the nation’s development through research.

But the professors at the Academy produced no practical theory, nothing that could be used. So the great intellects of the day were lost in completely irrelevant thought of no practical use (Swift, 1726).

Sometimes called blue sky theory, it exists in imaginary space not grounded to the earth We commonly see this today — degrees not grounded into practice a what works in the real world. It’s no wonder there are problems with youth underemployment — college grads waiting tables, serving drinks, and driving taxis.

I remember this well. I once meant a was looking for a marketing communication expert to fine-tune our corporate message. Low and behold, I was fortunate to run into a newly graded communications major from a top research university in southern California.

However, after numerous questions, it was obvious that that knowledge base was rich in mathematical models but lacked even the most basic understanding of who to structure a message to businesses or consumers. She was good at scholar English, a flavor of the language known for extreme abstraction guaranteed to cure insomnia by inducing an extreme state of boredom.

Implementing Planning: Four Phases of the Action Cycle


“Those who can do, Those who can’t do teach, Those who can’t teach, consult.” —American Saying

The Action Cycle is for those who do. When it comes to executing flawlessly, we use a similar process but a completely different set of mental tools. This cycle has four process steps. 

Mapping. On the journey of life, you better have a map or you will always be lost.

Routing. Choosing the best path is not so easy when you have lots of alternatives to sort through.

Doing. In the real world, you have to actually do something.

Orienting. You have to check to see that you are on course. Adapting is the process step of adjusting to get make sure one is always focusing on what. 

Phase 1: Mapping — Draw Your Map

 “Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.” — Horace Greeley, 1865

Painting By John Gast (circa 1872): Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny was a political ideology held by Americans during the 19th Century. This belief held that the nation should expand from the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific. Notice the use of light shining on technologies such as the railroad and the telegraph: the cultivation of the land, wagon trains, and so on. Notice the retreat of Indians and native species into the darkness; and that the East lies in the light of the known, but the West there is the darkness of the unknown.

Remember, most people know what they don’t want, but not what they do want. You know what you don’t like but could you visualize something better?

Action Tools for Mapping

Ortelius World Map Typvs Orbis Terrarvm, 1570.

Mapping your vision consists of perfecting two different but equally important mental processes:

  • Your Vision Narrative
  • Janusian Thinking

Planning Phase 2.  Routing

 “To know where you are going, you have to know where you are.” —M. Johannsen

U.S. National Park Service: Klondike Route Map

“Always, always plan your route.” ― Rick Riordan

In Phase I of this Journey of Discovery, you have decided on a destination and put together a map. Since you know your destination, it’s now time to plan your route. In this phase, you will develop a set of priorities and come up with a development plan. 

Like climbing Mount Everest, one has to find from among many routes, a path that works. Unlike climbing the mountain, you might have to find your own path. This is true of the entrepreneurs but less true for those in large organizations. 

Some paths are more difficult than others, so you must choose carefully the opportunities to seize, the threats to minimize, and the weaknesses to eliminate. 

Here, judgment and foresight become important. One has to have a sense of timing, of knowing what things take a while and what things can be done quickly. In this case, you will work three routes to get closer to your vision.

They are:

  • Route 1: Move toward opportunity
  • Route 2: Minimize threats
  • Route 3: Turn weaknesses into strengths.
Route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: Image by EncMaster, GNU 1.2

In some respects, get through life is a similar problem that to the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. The purpose of the expedition was to find a way to the Pacific. A way was found, but not without overcoming many difficulties. While the destination was clear, the route was not. Clearly, it would be better to have a map.

“So little done. So much to do” — Cecil Rhodes, Dying Words, Founder of DeBeers, the Rhodes Scholarship, and a country known as Rhodesia

The step is really, really an important chance up, to choose the best path toward reaching a vision. However, this is often where confusion sets in.

Hillary, Source: Wikipedia

Let’s illustrate this with a real example. In May 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and this Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay the first human beings to climb the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest. Before the successful ascent of the Southern route to the summit, others tried and either had to turn back or died on the mountain.

While the destination was clearly in sight, it wasn’t clear what path to take. One could make an ascent from the south or the north. There are many, many different obstacles one had to overcome that could not have been foreseen. It’s only when you got on a particular method that you knew whether it is going to work. 

Today climbing to the top of Everest has become much easier. There are companies that for around $60,000 will guide you to the top. You can even have an experienced Sherpa guide who will assist you. Plus, the route has been traveled many times, and there are ropes and ladders provided. It’s still extremely difficult, just the route is well understood and well-traveled.

You are striving to do something you have never done before. This is the essential problem of the entrepreneur who has to create a business from scratch and it is not always clear how to do so. How is the destination but do I have to pick out a path? Hoping you so that you don’t die on the mountain. 

Besides the problem of the unknown route, there is a second problem with route choice. That is, you may not be on the best path, rather than an easy ascent, your road is the more difficult one. But you don’t know it. Rather than choosing the optimal route, we have chosen a suboptimal one. 

Take a simple example, getting to work in the morning. Most people used the same route over and over again and they fail to ask a fundamental question, “What is the best route given existing conditions this day?”

Planning Tools For Routing

Mount Everest: Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

To grasp what needs to be done each and each month you will want to know how to fill out:

  • An iSWOT
  • Strategy Framework

Plan Phase 3: Doing

 “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” —Arthur Ashe

Placido Costanzi (Italian, 1702-1759): Alexander the Great founds a new city with the name of Alexandria. One of many he established during his reign.

The map is made. The routes are chosen. Now it’s time to take action.

It might be a time of frustration. For whenever you try something new, you find that the mind resists the change, it prefers things the way they are.

You will have to overcome undesired behaviors and negative states of mind that conspire to prevent forward progress. After all, what’s practiced for many years, isn’t going to stop in a week.

You will have victories, but will also suffer defeats. You are to work at it every day, every week, every month. It’s all part of the process.

Mental Tools:

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675): Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid

To capture key observations, you will need to learn how to fill out:

  • A Daily Journal
  • Reflection

Action Cycle Phase 4: Orienting

Philippe Behagle (1690-1705): Jesuit Astronomers

Periodically, you need to check to see where you are. In the days before modern technology, you might use a compass, sextant, or the stairs to check your progress (or lack of it). 

The same goes for the Action Cycle, you have to periodically assess where you are and make any adjustments necessary to keep from going off track. This is one of the most important parts of the process.

Mental Tools

Władysław Czachórski (1850–1911): Pensive

To stay on track, you will need to learn about:

  • Weekly Reflection
  • The Lesson Learned

Reflection especially is an important skill to learn. It’s a root cause for the observation made by many that most people fail to learn from experience. 

Quote: When everything has to be right, something isn't.


Wikipedia (N.D.). PDCA Extracted on  May 4, 2014 

Wikipedia Edmund Hilary bio. Extracted on May 4, 2014 

Keys to a Successful Business Strategy. Execution and organizational stability are key to a successful business strategy. This article stresses the importance of the interdependence between the market, company culture, leadership behavior, and talent practices. 

Ovid (8 AD). Metamorphoses. (Book of Transformations). This book covers many different Greek and Roman myths.

Virgil (19 BCE). Aeneid. What do you do if you are a prince and your homeland is laid to waste? You try to find a new homeland.

Campbell, Joseph (1972). The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Bolligen Series #17, Princeton University. A little hard to read, but still considered one of the classics in the field.

Covey, Steven & McChesney, Chris. (2012). The 4 Disciplines of Execution: The Secret To Getting Things Done, On Time, With Excellence. Audio Cassette.

Covey, Stephen (1989). The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon and Schuster. It’s been a while since it was published but it is still a classic must-read for general principles. Of course, the challenge is turning principles into habits, but that has always been the difficult part. 

Homer, (650 BC approximately). The Odyssey. They don’t get much better than this, the wily Odysseus trying to get home from war.

Horwath, Rick (2014). Elevate: The Three Disciplines of Advanced Strategic Thinking. Wiley.  Short Book Description: According to a study published in Chief Executive Magazine, the most valued skill in leaders today is strategic thinking. However, more than half of all companies say that strategic thinking is the skill their senior leaders most need to improve.

Johannsen, Murray. (2014). For a Change: Achieving Your Master Plan for Life and Work. Ebook on Apple iTunes. (Embed), Book 1 of the Quest for Heros.  Description: This book goes into depth into developing a future-oriented Master Plan. 

Kotter, John (2014). Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World. Harvard Business Review. Press.  Description: It’s a familiar scene in organizations today: a new competitive threat or a big opportunity emerges. You quickly create a strategic initiative in response and appoint your best people to make change happen. And it does—but not fast enough

McChesney, Chris; Covey, Sean; and Huling, Jim (2012). The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals. Free Press. Description: Do you remember the last major initiative you watched die in your organization? Did it go down with a loud crash? Or was it slowly and quietly suffocated by other competing priorities?

Mellon, Liz & Carter, Simon (2013). The Strategy of Execution: A Five-Step Guide for Turning Vision into Action. McGraw-Hill. Description: Businesses spend a combined total of $47 billion annually on strategy consulting. Approximately 90 percent of strategic change initiatives fail to deliver the intended results. Something isn’t adding up.

Stack, Laura (2014). Execution IS the Strategy: How Leaders Achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time, Berritt Koehler Publishers. Description: Laura Stack shows you how to quickly drive strategic initiatives and get great results from your team. Her LEAD Formula outlines the Four Keys to Successful Execution: 

Swift, Thomas (1726). The Project Gutenberg eBook, Gulliver’s Travels: Transcribed from the 1892 George Bell and Sons edition. Description: A great book based on the premise that institutions behave stupidly. 

Thean, Patrick (2014). Rhythm: How to Achieve Breakthrough Execution and Accelerate Growth. Greenleaf Book Group. Description: A simple system to help your team execute better and faster. All growing companies encounter ceilings of complexity, usually when they hit certain employee or revenue milestones. 

Don’t be like the people below, take action, and get started today.


How To Apply This Theory


Access the .pdf file titled Mastering the Cycle of Execution 

Access the .pdf file for Individuals and Cohorts

Work Skills For the 21st Century