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January 20, 2022
Use Calendar Mapping to Plan Complex Cross-Functional Initiatives
By Jay W. Vogt

Jay Vogt
Jay Vogt
Nonprofit leaders who manage complex initiatives know that success often depends on efficient interdependencies between diverse, cross-functional work groups. Miss those interconnections, and you get “train wrecks.”

If the thought of such train wrecks keeps you up at night, consider a collaborative work technique called calendar mapping.

Calendar mapping engages diverse functional groups in doing four things:
  1. Defining success outcomes for a period of time, like a quarter or a year.
  2. Defining key milestones and events toward achievement of those success outcomes over the course of the given time period.
  3. Defining key functional tracks of activity that lead to those outcomes, and mapping out the key tasks and action steps that bring about their successful achievement.
  4. Identifying the interdependencies between the tracks, scouting possible train wrecks, and adjusting the map to enhance the former and avoid the latter.
Project management software does all these things, but few people have mastered it, and even the work of those who have is only as good as their input. Calendar mapping creates the conversation between the people who make a project live or die and maps it in a highly visual way that can be shared by all. Although simple, it is powerful. And once the map is complete, you can always track it with software if you like.

Imagine commandeering a huge flat wall for this purpose, one that allows you to hang rolls of paper that are four feet or even eight feet tall, and up to 25 feet long. Think of the wall you find at the back of a theater stage. Imagine a kind of huge spreadsheet that you create on the paper with markers, complete with columns and rows, and a totals track for each. The columns represent units of time #147; weeks in a quarter, months in a year, quarters in multiple years. The rows represent tracks of functional activity. The totals column for the rows lists the success outcomes for your activities. The totals row for the columns lists the milestone achievements that indicate progress toward your intended results over time. Adhesive notes are used to record data in a flexible way.

I once used this tool with a healthcare organization that needed to install a new custom software system that was going to affect every aspect of their operations. The software team focused on customizing the software; the human resource team focused on training workers; the clinical team focused on testing beta sites; the customer service team focused on coaching patients; the management team focused on coordinating teams. The company had a drop-dead date for implementation, but the diverse functional teams hadn’t yet developed a single master calendar of who was doing what, when, and why.

After defining overall outcomes together, the various functional groups then worked separately and mapped their milestones, and their key tasks, using adhesive notes, peppering the wall with color. Each group then presented their work to the others. The silence after the final presentation was palpable. A critical hand-off of work was assumed by one work group and not anticipated by the other. The time needed for a central task by one group threatened to derail the work of every other group. A vigorous negotiation ensued, and a schedule that made sense to all was hammered out.

Nonprofits often use calendar mapping to make a cross-functional operational plan. A leader gets the key functional players in a room with the right work surface and supplies. A full day is great for this exercise, but the broad strokes can be mapped out in just half a day. A calendar or fiscal year will be the typical unit of time. Critical program initiatives flow through two or three activity tracks, and may be shadowed by a fundraising campaign track, a marketing campaign track, or a capital improvement project track. People get engaged fast and stay on board.

Save the train wrecks to enjoy in action movies, where nobody gets hurt. Avoid them in your organization with calendar mapping.

Jay W Vogt is president of Peoplesworth and author of Recharge Your Team: The Grounded Visioning Approach by Praeger. Contact Jay at

November 2010
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