Maximizing Strategic Success

For a couple decades now we’ve heard claims from change experts such as Joh Kotter and McKinsey & Company that on average, 70% of new, large-scale strategic initiatives fall short of their goal.  Even if the basis for the claim is over-stated, the results would suggest that an alarming number of strategic initiatives fall short of their goal. An argument can be made that the number is even higher for small and mid-market companies where a lack of resources and skills add to the failure risk. However you look at the data, the failure rate is staggering and given the effort and cost put into strategies, improving the success rate even by a small amount would yield significant results.

A strategy implies change and change inherently involves a component of leadership to be successful. To get a change in outcomes there has to be a change in how something is done. When focusing on getting an initiative to stick, attention is often centered too much on the management and implementation of the strategy and not enough on the leadership required for the change.

The two components of successful strategy implementation are behavior and beliefs. Behavior changes how we work. Beliefs enable it to stick. To get consistent behavior and thereby implementation success, leadership is required to change the belief. Management is required to navigate the detailed coordination of the implementation.

Change comes in different forms requiring varying degrees of leadership and management, and the management of a change is often independent of the leadership required. One change initiative may require considerable management with relatively little leadership while another may need relatively little management but require significant leadership. This is best illustrated by looking at change from the perspective of the relationship of project management to transformational leadership for the purpose of reshaping behavior and beliefs.

  • The first and easiest degree of change is one that requires no change of behavior or belief to succeed. Here the emphasis is on management. The sale of a non-performing asset might require a great deal of management and coordination, but little change in employee behavior or beliefs is required, hence not a great need for change leadership.
  • The second degree of change would be one which involves a change of behavior but not a change of belief. Imagine an organization implementing a new phase of an established quality program. The company already believes in the quality approach but the new component requires a change of behavior. The new behavior is made easier since the organization has already embraced and bought into the overall program. As the degree of difficulty increases with new procedures, so does the role of leadership to cement new behaviors into the organization.
  • The third and final degree of change is characteristic of most new and bold strategic initiatives. These initiatives not only require a change of behavior but also of belief. Fresh strategies that depart from historical practice hold some of the greatest benefits but also come with a significant risk of falling short of their expectation. An effort to build a customer-centric culture in a company that previously saw the customer as the enemy is just such an example. These changes are often slow, difficult to assimilate into the culture and require a great deal of leadership and perseverance to succeed.

Several simple steps can be taken to increase the likelihood of a successful strategy implementation.

  • A Clear and vivid picture. For a strategy to succeed, the organization has to buy into the destination, not the journey. People will slog through some tough terrain if they want to get to where they’re going. Seek to make it personally beneficial for everyone touched by the change.
  • Over communicate. You almost can’t over-communicate during times of big change. Frequent conversation answers questions and addresses real matters of interest and speculation. Don’t overlook adopting new language for the change. Words matter and carefully chosen ones can change minds.
  • Make it bite-size. Don’t let the organization become overwhelmed. The management of a strategy can be large and complex. Leadership can break it down into segments everyone can understand and support. The journey of a thousand miles is made up of many individual steps.

One critical step is to evaluate the culture for mechanisms and components that could inhibit the change. Stories, rituals, established practices along with embedded attitudes, often seen as the truth, can stall out a strategy if not addressed in advance. In most cases, it’s not a conscious or deliberate effort to derail the plan, it’s just people acting normal and normal seeks to maintain the status quo. Emphasize and reinforce what’s positive of the strategy, change what’s not. Today we have tools to evaluate and facilitate culture transformation making it much easier to be proactive in creating an environment that supports strategic change.

The greatest lesson to be learned is that success lies more in the minds of those affected and involved in the change than in the details of the change itself. Successful strategies require leadership to precede management. Management will get the work done. Leadership is the grease that makes it all work.

If you’d like to enjoy greater success with your strategic initiatives, reach out to me through our website or the “contact us” tab on this page.

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