(Planning) A Landslide Does Not Begin With Boulders, it Begins With Pebbles. With Sand.

Kent Dahlgren
12 min readMay 6, 2019


In various previous blogs, I’ve been sharing the method to my madness in the creation of high functioning teams.

Let’s assume that you are a solitary person with a great big vision: Save the world.

Let’s assume further that you’ve received some dramatic insights on how to actually pull that off.

It’s probably a good vision, as far as that goes, and there’s probably a lot of details behind it, but as the title of this blog suggests: a landslide does not begin with boulders.

The landslide begins with the movement of the smallest pebbles, assisted by the relative fluidity afforded by many grains of sand and soil suspended in liquid.

So how do we get that landslide flowing?

Step by step:

Buy some sticky notes. They don’t have to be fancy ones, just get the ones that are like 3 in.²

Get a sharpie. So far you’ve spent about five dollars, but if budget is a constraint, just use scraps of paper in the recycling bin and a crayon.

Spend no more than 15 minutes of the following activity:

You’re going to write, on three to five sticky notes, what you will accomplish in about five years.

An example could be, More trees on Cypress.

Stuff like that.

I’m talking about visionary statements, with an emphasis upon a picture of the future, instead of the details on how it’s going to get done.

Bonus points: see if you can state your vision in a way which could be measured, for example: more trees on Cypress by 2025.

Now walk away from it. Just go for a walk, sip a cup of coffee, listen to music. Do no more on the activity for now.

It’s extremely important that you program in the time necessary for your mind to wander. In my experience, a high-functioning team spends about 1/3 of their time messing around, making jokes, going for walks, etc.

Embrace that weird hippy stuff, because if you give people the room to think, they will come up with great ideas.

Anyway, the next day, look at these stickies, and think about who is going to help you pull this off.

Grab two additional stickies, of a different color, and write down the type of role they would perform.

Project Manager.

Business Development.

Or whatever.

Think about the type of person and the type of job that you need to help get your vision implemented.

This particular activity should take no more than 15 minutes, and when finished, walk away from it, sip some coffee, listen to music, let your mind wander as you ruminate on the solution.

Again: don’t work your idea to death. Which can happen. Don’t do that.

Day Three: for each of the three to five vision stickies, write another complementary sticky for what you will do in three years to support that vision.

You will be creating columns of stickies, obviously, so arrange the five-year vision ones from left to right, and then the complementary three year sticky beneath it.

More trees on Cypress is the five-year vision.

Get classrooms of children to plant trees on Cyprus might be the three-year complementary strategy.

This should take no longer than 15 minutes. Walk away, drink some coffee, listen to music, whatever.

Day Four: elaborate upon your stickies regarding potential contributors to your effort, writing in any additional details you can think of, but remember: this is a sticky note. And you’re using a crayon, or a sharpie.

Start thinking about who you can approach to help, bearing in mind that you will likely not be able to pay them.

If you pick the right person, they will actually enjoy this type of activity, and would likely not expect payment upfront, anyway.

There are people out there who share your passion, and they happen to enjoy the type of work that are on your draft Roles and Responsibilities stickies. You don’t have to identify who they are right now, but let me assure you: they exist.

With that in mind, walk away from the table, go for a walk. Listen to music, let your mind wander. Maybe do some art, just because. Or invent a holiday, like Dwayne Day, which occurs on February 6th of each year.

Dwayne Day? Glad you asked.

Dwayne Melancon is one of my former bosses, and one day my friend Andrew and I decided to declare an international holiday.


Counterpoint: why not?

Dwayne is a great boss, and that’s good enough reason to declare an annual holiday where we follow him around, singing Happy Dwayne Day to You.

If you are managing creative people, you should consider giving them the room to breath, creatively, even if it means they do strange things, because it will contribute to a culture of creativity.

So. Do that. Allow yourself the room to breathe, be creative, and be silly. You’re setting an organizational tone in your every act. Invest early in making this fun.

Day Five: on a sticky, write execution items in support of what you will do this year in support of your vision (and complementary strategy).

Pilot project: cypress children planting trees.

On a separate sticky, write measurements/metrics for each execution item.

Highlighted in five classrooms; adopted by one classroom.

You should now have a hierarchy:

vision (yellow — five years)

strategy (teal — three years)

execution (red — one year)

measurement (purple — one year)

What’s the significance of this activity?

In five days, and in less than an hour, you have created the framework which maps the breadth of your vision to actual execution steps which can be implemented in the next 12 months.

And: you have created the basis of key performance indicators (KPI) which will help you quantify how well you are executing upon your plan.

Step away from the table, and ruminate upon this. Maybe think about more strange and fun expressions of art.

Your mind will begin to start working on the problem of how to execute your plan, which brings us back to the draft list of contributors.

Ideally, find two others — and you want to find the kind of people who are not afraid to tell you when you are wrong, but will tell you with kindness and not cruelty. Optimally, they will use humor.

How do you engage with these people? It’s pretty simple, actually.

Take those stickies, which create a framework which maps your vision to execution steps, and put it into a presentation. Only use three slides.

First slide is a seven to ten word summary of what is contained within your vision stickies.

A return of the forests to Cypress by 2025.

Slide Two: the plan. Replicate the VSEM framework, with a vision along the top, followed by strategy, followed by execution, followed by metrics.

VSEM? Oh, yeah. It was developed at Cisco, which is something like the Microsoft of the networking world, and it’s an example of how private sector companies implement strategy to aspired fiscal plan.

So if you approach somebody who is from the private sector, they might actually recognize the methodology you’re using as one which is typically considered professional and battle tested, because it’s how large multinational corporation‘s deliver upon aggressive fiscal aspirations.

Sure, there’s other frameworks. Don’t allow yourself to be coaxed into analysis paralysis by those who will share 1000 alternative frameworks but won’t execute upon a single thing.

Just pick one and go with it. Emphasis upon execution.

Slide Three: three photos, one of them yours. The other two are placeholders for people who will help you implement the plan.

What are their roles? What do they get out of the experience of volunteering to bootstrap this plan?

What is your request from them in terms of time and resources?

Oh, yeah. That.

Meet daily for 15 minutes. This is called a Standup, and the topic of the meeting is to discuss what you did yesterday in support of the execution plan, what you will work on today, and any blockers or inhibitions that you might have experienced.

The various execution stickies will likely be broken into smaller tasks, such as Identify a list of schools we can approach or Cultivate a relationship with school administrators.

A task is just that: a single activity which could be executed upon without too many dependencies.

Your team will discuss their progress for no more than 15 minutes on a daily basis, which creates something like an execution tempo.

Speaking of tempo: you will want to define a release schedule, which enables the team to periodically evaluate their progress to the plan, so modifications to the plan could be made accordingly.

Remember that there are stickies which define execution items, and each one is associated with a measurement.

Define a regular and consistent release tempo, such as every one week or two weeks, and set out to perform a number of tasks within that time.

These are called Sprints, which is an easy enough metaphor to understand. The plan itself might be huge in scope, but the execution steps are pebble sized, implemented in small leaps and sprints.

These release increments, or sprints, are defined by the team on a regular basis. If the sprint is one week in duration, then the team will meet and discuss what tasks they will do within that sprints on a weekly basis, and these meetings should only last about an hour or two, assuming that you have defined the tasks well.

Most people create tasks that are too large. Just drill those down into small, bite-sized actionable steps, and don’t over commit. People always overestimate how much they can get done.

True, a task like Call the school might take 15 minutes, but bear in mind that there will also be phone calls, the need to go to the grocery store, a kid that gets sick, and all of the other things life throws at us on a daily basis.

In general, it’s healthy to take the estimate of time needed and double or triple it, because that’s more realistic.

This activity is called Grooming the Backlog, and Defining the Sprint, and if the language sounds familiar, it’s because it’s standard practice within modern software development teams.

I just taught you how modern software is created by the worlds most high performance engineering teams. The methodology is mostly applicable to any other endeavor, really.

This is basically what goes into that third slide, but you don’t have to go into this much detail.

It’s actually as simple as this:

I need someone to help me with financial considerations, and the time commitment is 15 minutes per day for daily reviews, about an hour to two per week to define the sprints, and any additional time necessary to complete certain tasks.

What do they get out of this? What benefit do they gain from being involved?

My questions are rhetorical. They are hoping you bootstrap your vision, and as such: they are technically co-founders.

My recommendation is to give them credit where credit is due, because this builds a team spirit that is difficult to extinguish, once ignited.

Look out for the standard tells of excessive ego, because that’s the sort of thing that will destroy your team quicker than than the dickens.

You’re talking about an all volunteer team of three people. If one of those people start talking about whether or not they are the chief financial officer, pay particular attention to their motivations, because titles are a weird thing to fixate on in the context of an all volunteer effort.

Be honest. Look at all of those stickies. Do any of them say things like Elevate my personal brand?

If that is your goal, then put it on a sticky; don’t be disingenuous, because I guarantee you this will go pear shaped if you are.

It’s perfectly acceptable to have that be part of your vision. Our own VSEM says, Be and be perceived as a market leader, and there are various execution tasks which pertain to helping define a market and find a market analyst which would support that vision.

But if that is not one of your vision statements, be careful who you attract as part of your execution team, because their ego can consume your project.

It is likely that you will be bringing on more to contribute with little to no pay, and so you should emphasize a shared sense of ownership and collective attribution as one of the rewards, as this investment pays dividends in the forms of a sense of ownership, responsible stewardship, and work quality.

In summary: slide three has just three photos, one of them yours, the other two placeholders.

A list of what’s needed in just a few words, and what they get out of it.

Keep looking for those people as you execute on your plan, and as you execute on your plan, keep track of your activities using any number of freely available tools.

Technically, technology is not necessarily needed.

You could just use Google hangouts/Meet and talk about the stickies that are on your table, and people can use pen and paper.

Technology is frequently in an inhibition.

It’s common for a team to set up a Telegram channel, add a bunch of “contributors,” and then find yourself completely drowning in spamposts by people who are mistaking spamposting for contributions.

You will likely hear me say something like this:

No, dude, I did not read your article from Medium about how to build a high functioning team. I’ve been too busy actually doing the work, and also: I saw your 63,000 other posts that you picked up from the web and posted in our channel.

spamposting does not equal contribution.

I counsel that you emphasize execution to defined metrics with a minimal emphasis on so-called communication, because a vast majority of it is complete echo chamber BS.

And you probably have already experienced the phenomenon where the byproduct of over-communication is team apathy. People just stop participating.

I guarantee you that three disciplined people executing to plan with minimal chit chat overhead will outperform any huge team of spamposters.

However, technology can assist.

For messaging, we like signal. It’s one of the few messaging platforms we currently trust, in terms of security, but of course there’s a Telegram, Messenger, ‎WhatsApp, etc.

As I have already stated, there should be a severe limitation on the volume and quality of so-called “communication“ which occurs within these channels, because it will absolutely kill your collaboration.

That said:

In terms of videoconferencing, Google Meet/Hangouts is perfectly acceptable, although inevitably you’re going to find somebody who decides to verbosely tell you why Google is terrible and why you should use their fringe video conferencing alternative.

Pick one and go with it. Execution is more important than aesthetics.

Let me assure you that Anonymous will not knock on your door and hand you a prize for deft navigation of the most private tools labyrinth. Stop putting yourself through so much torture and just get to work.

In terms of task management, Trello is freely available, and will help you list the tasks that you are executing upon.

I’m sure there are better ones, but everybody knows Trello, and frequently it’s best to go with the low common denominator.

I’m a pretty big fan of Jira, simply because everybody knows it (low common denominator), and the paid version features some fairly sophisticated workflow and automation functionalities in support of the methodology I have shared.

Jira supports a sprints backlog, quantitatively defined sprints, the basis of retrospective review, task assignment, workflow, etc.

There are so many free whiteboard tools available I won’t even bother naming them. You can use Google and search free whiteboard tools, and find more than one that are perfectly acceptable.

That’s it, really.

It might seem simple, but following this will help you get a lot of stuff done for very cheap, and very quickly.

If you would like to learn more, or even just talk about how to get your project off the ground, give us a call or contact us at www.214alpha.com



Kent Dahlgren

Product management fix-it guy. World-famous people skills. Extremely small hands. (edit) marketing lady says I’m also supposed to say “CEO of software company”