Successful implementation of strategic initiatives to achieve desired results is a tough task. Failures of these efforts are not often quickly embraced as opportunities for remediation by owners and senior executives. A company needs to foster an operational ecosystem them drives accountability, ownership, and effective decision-making to ensure that strategic initiatives are executed as planned.
Overhead ‘Fixed’ Resources are dedicated to plan and implement strategic initiatives that are intended to improve organizational maturity and operational productivity. Strategic initiatives can range from short sprints that involve one or two resources to major efforts that consume the company’s attention for months. Prior to implementation, desired steady state for every strategic initiative should be clearly articulated at the tail-end of strategic planning. The specifics of execution plan to achieve the desired steady state should also be clearly laid out.
Nevertheless, implementation will be extremely hard. Executing on slated efforts and successfully achieving the desired results is a tall order. Anyone who has deep operational design experience can attest to this. So, why is it so hard to perform seemingly straightforward tasks based on a plan to achieve relatively achievable improvements in organizational maturity and productivity?
Before discussing the reasons for implementation difficulties, let us frame the common manifestations of implementation failures because companies and individuals are often reluctant and not introspective enough to call a failure what it really is. Embracing failures allow a company and teams to focus on fixing the problem as opposed to dedicating precious resources creating positive stories from failing initiatives.
Manifestations Of Implementation Failures
Whatever the scope of an initiative is, the probability that it will miss the mark is very high if the steady state and execution plans are not effectively developed. Even if these plans are well developed, implementation of initiatives often run into trouble and below are the three most common forms of failures that every company should proactively look for and address.
1: Change of priorities
Change of priority is the most commonly used code for “we are admitting defeat without saying so!”. Initiatives often start strong with kick-off meetings and forward momentum for the first two or three weeks. However, many times senior executives change their mind about commitment to the initiative or what it should achieve based on limited new information. This usually happens due to two reasons:
- The initiative did not have a comprehensive rationale behind it in the first place. i.e. the strategic planning effort that drove the initiatives was poor or the Strategic Initiative Map was poorly built out during planning.
- Executive sponsors did not perform their key responsibility of staying true to the strategic plan and show discipline during operationalization. Results do not appear in two or three weeks; it is imperative that senior executives have the discipline to stay the course on strategic initiatives and see them through to the end.
2: Change of personnel
Senior executives may change; Overhead ‘Fixed’ Resources implementing initiatives may resign; such personnel change is par for the course at any company. However, small- and mid-sized companies tend to mothball existing plans or expect major overhauls because new individuals are on the playing field. However, personnel changes in itself is not a good enough reason. Companies must stick to its system, which is its strategic plan and associated operational plans. Plan to implement an initiative should only change if there is something more compelling to replace it.
Another symptom of this problem is passing the responsibility of the same initiative to different owners over time with limited realistic progress in the targeted outcomes or change in scope. This is another method of kicking the can down the road without embracing failure.
3: Check-the-box outcomes
The last indicator of an initiative failure is declaration of victory without demonstration of measurable improvement in operational conditions or disclosure of strong deliverables that are proxies for productivity or maturity impact. These symptoms likely imply that these initiatives have fizzled into a check-the-box exercise during the course of implementation. Either an organizational culture with limited individual accountability or poor steady state or execution phase plans are usually responsible for this.
Embracing implementation failures is uncommon because it is easier to avoid difficult conversations and situations in the short-term. But as a collective, all stakeholders involved with the company will suffer. It is important for senior executives and Overhead ‘Fixed’ Resources to take an objective look at strategic initiatives to internalize whether the above tendencies are prevalent in the organization.
The Root Cause – Human Nature
Every initiative at all companies cannot be hard to execute on, but vast majority of them are executed poorly. This only leaves one variable: Humans. Admittedly, humans make communication, collaboration, and discipline complex.
Throughout the Turnaround Science Growth Framework, the importance of planning for the worst and hoping for the best is evident. The reason is that things are more likely to go awry than otherwise, when human beings work together. It is critical to internalize and discuss this openly at every company, especially at fast-growing, small- and mid-sized companies where employees have low average tenure of working together as a team.
Implementation Success Factors
Successful companies use personnel and initiative management approaches that they attribute their success to. Aspiring companies attempt to leverage similar approaches and hope that it is as simple as just quickly installing the same approach with some basic supporting documentation or implementing a technology to manage initiatives. An example of such a popular option is Google’s Objectives and Key Results approach. Unfortunately, operational success with implementations cannot be driven by quickly rinsing-and-repeating a tactic in a vacuum.
Implementation effectiveness demands a comprehensive ecosystem that drives every individual to achieve success, while the environment complements individual’s efforts. The name given to the approach that drives operational effectiveness is not important; the ingredients that drive day-to-day behaviors is the critical portion. The infographic below speaks to the four-quadrants that form the operational ecosystem and the ingredients that drive exceptionalism.
1: Collective – Environment
Companies have the responsibility to create an atmosphere that allows all Overhead ‘Fixed’ Resources to excel at their strengths and take help when they encounter skill-gaps. From a strategic initiative implementation perspective, owners need to have command of their initiatives without facing too many distractions or roadblocks.
Under the Leadership Approach component of the Growth Framework, Turnaround Science introduced the concept of Comparative Advantage Culture. Such a culture would imply that an organization operates decisively, and attributes authority based on tangible skills and expertise as opposed to seniority or organizational alignment. Owners of strategic initiatives will require a reasonable amount of autonomy to make decisions, as long as the remaining three behavioral guardrails are satisfied – a Comparative Advantage Culture would offer initiative owners such an environment.
However, it is also critical to ensure that strategic initiatives stay within the scope and essence of the operational plans that make them impactful to achieve the company’s strategy. This brings us to the aspect of accountability.
2: Collective – Skill
Companies have to ensure that there is a clear accountability structure for all Overhead ‘Fixed’ Resources, who are responsible for driving strategic initiatives. Performance management, which is another critical concept in the framework should articulate expectations for every single resource and hold them accountable against those expectations. These expectations (goals and the specific competencies to achieve them) should align with the operational plans for initiatives owned by each resource. It is critical that performance management is the objective path to assess success or failure for Overhead Resources’ efforts. Underlying reasons for failed initiatives often rest with a lack of clearly articulated accountabilities at all seniority levels based on a centralized, agreed-upon approach.
3: Individual – Environment
In addition to a Comparative Advantage Culture, each individual must ensure that their modus operandi enables the successful implementation and adoption of initiatives. Every single aspect included under Leadership Toolkit will enable individual Overhead Resources to operate autonomously, drive fast-paced decisions, and achieve organizational buy-in by communicating effectively through structured deliverables.
4: Individual – Skill
Lastly, there is no substitute for individual skills to implement the execution plan, perform analyses, develop processes, and operate at the mature end of the Objective & Analytical Culture model. A small- to mid-sized company has to ensure that its hiring practices and definition of roles and responsibilities bring together the most optimal talent to execute strategic initiatives effectively.
Understanding and embracing various manifestations of implementation failures will allow a company to objectively and proactively resolve ineffective efforts early on. An optimal organization-wide ecosystem is necessary to drive individuals to execute initiatives effectively and those efforts to result in operational productivity and organizational maturity improvements.