Here in the northeast, we’re at the ragged end of winter. Right now I’m driving into New York City with my husband (he’s driving, I’m tapping away on my laptop), and the landscape as at its least attractive: colorless and shabby, with that particular steel-grey damp cold that makes you think spring will never arrive.

But it will. That’s the astonishing thing. A month from now, we’ll be driving down this same highway, and the trees will all be arrayed in that lovely gauziness of new green foliage, the grass will be greening up along the roadsides, and the yellow and white jewelry of the daffodils and jonquils will be strewn across the hills.

Nature does its job beautifully. There’s a vision for the next season contained in the wiring of the current one, and it unfolds—every single year—according to that design. Voila: spring.

As I observe nature, I think about the power of doing the right thing at the right time in the right way. In my household, we joke that the perfect approach to nearly anything is envision, plan, execute. It may sound simple, but I’ve been noticing lately that in the vast majority of cases where an executive runs off the rails, it’s a failure of one of these three things. And two out of three doesn’t work. Here’s what I mean:

  1. Envision. I often tell groups that ‘everyone is a visionary’—and it’s true. We each have the ability to imagine a future that doesn’t yet exist. Unfortunately, we all also have the capability to talk ourselves out of that vision, to negate the possibility of possibilities, to just put our heads down and plow forward without thinking about what we’re trying to create. As a leader it’s critical to have and share a sense of what could be: without that, it’s hard to motivate people. It’s tough for a team to get enthusiastic about making a lot of effort if they don’t know why they’re doing it, or where it’s leading.
  2. Plan. On the other hand, having a vision and trying to go straight from ideation to execution doesn’t work either. I often see executives doing this: they come up with something they think is a great possibility, and tell people to “just make it happen.” All too often, that simply results in a flurry of uncoordinated effort, frustration all around, and the executive moaning that people “just don’t get” his or her vision. Taking the time to plan how to get from where you are now to the future you hope to achieve is time extraordinarily well-spent.
  3. Execute. This one seems as though it would be the easiest, but—oddly—it’s the place I’ve noticed people falling down the most lately. One executive of my acquaintance does a lot of envisioning and planning—he’s big on off-sites and having people write up their 3, 6, and 12-month plans…but not much gets accomplished. He thinks he’s doing a great job and can’t seem to understand why their results aren’t better. Unfortunately, I’m watching this from afar—he hasn’t invited us to help—but it’s clear to me that he’s missing that essential “execute” step. I often feel like saying to him—Dude, stop talking now and just DO it. Once you know where you want to go, and see what you most need to do in order to get there…then you have to get it done, either doing it yourself (if it’s just you, or you’re running a small business) or delegating it to others, and holding them accountable for doing it.

I especially notice the lack of one or more of these elements when things aren’t going well for a business. Some leaders’ reaction is to simply do, do do…as though feverish execution will make up for lack of vision and planning. And other leaders—like the guy I mentioned above—vision and plan till the cows come home, but spin their wheels when it comes to making the important stuff happen.

If you can get into the rhythm of envisioning success, planning how to make that happen, and then implementing your plan, you’ll be able to accomplish most things you set out to do. And like the unfolding of the seasons, it will be a thing of beauty.