The Nine Most Common Ways Initiatives Get Stuck in Organizations
by Shelley Sweet
Do you have execution leakage?
To stay at the top of the today’s market, companies need to deal with global competition, high expectations for quarterly earnings, new product development, technology changes, and a diverse workforce. They know they need unifying goals and a strategic plan to maintain their competitive advantage. But according to a Fortune article, 85% of well-developed strategies are not well executed in the workplace. What creates execution leakage?
When I work with companies I hear about numerous problems and obstacles that keep companies from getting the results they want. Here’s what management and employees are saying:
- Why are we working on this initiative anyway?
- Our incentives are to work on projects in our business unit, not to help in cross-functional initiatives.
- Will we ever see any results? Most projects take too long, cost too much money, and don’t deliver the results we anticipated.
- Who’s really accountable for this initiative?
- That new technology can’t be trusted.
- There isn’t critical mass to make this initiative happen.
If your initiative is encountering some of these responses, you could be in for trouble. The question is how you pinpoint where the problem is and what you can do about it
Nine Ways to Get Stuck
In working with large and small companies over the past 15 years, I have identified 9 key areas that impact the success or failure of any initiative. They are represented in the diagram above. You need to monitor all 9 areas to ensure success. Let’s talk about each one in more detail.
How important is the initiative to customers? If it’s important to external customers, are there reports and quantifiable data to make your point? If the focus of this initiative is internal, is it one of the top 5 company initiatives? Do you see visible executive sponsorship? Without strong customer need it is difficult to get everyone’s attention and build common purpose.
Positioning and Message
How is this initiative aligned with the company vision? Does it support current market needs or anticipated future needs? If it’s targeted to future needs, prepare to make a major effort to help employees understand its importance. There’s also a risk that the project will falter because of changes in the future market.
Also consider the message. A complex or technical message is a red flag. Make it simple and memorable. Is it clear how the initiative will benefit customers? Do employees believe in the benefits, and do they see how the initiative benefits them in particular?
Is there meaningful data to propel the initiative? Without data, your story will sound like one person’s opinion. Data talks powerfully to all levels in the organization from senior executives to front-line and operational employees. Data creates results. It will stimulate action. Use the customer data to create urgency. Use data to show the impact on company revenue and expenses. Find the data that shows how each stakeholder group is affected.
Look out if there is no designated end-to-end owner for the process who has the required span of control. Without this ownership, you won’t have real accountability for the initiative and all its elements. In addition to the one end-to-end owner, are there designated owners accountable for specific project elements, and can they accomplish these projects? Have the necessary budget, funding, and human resources been identified and approved? One successful project had project owners assigned at the beginning of the project who were expected to carry the project through to implementation. These people successfully took the system to conclusion, and did not have to transition their efforts to groups who had not been involved.
Are you organized for success? Organization should address the vertical hierarchy, cross-functional units, customers, and partners, as well as mirror the demographics and psychographics of the stakeholder groups. Is a strong guiding coalition leading the effort? Are all stakeholder communities active partners in the initiative? If you have left out key stakeholder groups, be prepared for them to raise their voices later and block the initiative.
Are there intrinsic and extrinsic motivators for executives and employees? Without motivators, achieving forward movement on the initiative will feel like you’re pushing a string uphill. Monetary incentives for executives are strong influencers if related to initiative completion and success. In one company, executive bonuses were based on meeting or exceeding goals in their division, so they made these projects first priority. They paid less attention to larger cross-company initiatives where they had less influence and limited monetary incentives.
Non-monetary incentives are important as well. These incentives can take many forms. For example, some employees may be excited by the state-of-art nature of the project, others may welcome the opportunity to make a meaningful individual contribution, or managers may see that the initiative will help with another project of their own.
How deeply are company employees, managers, customers, suppliers, and partners involved? Have stakeholder groups been involved from the beginning in understanding and creating the project design and plan? Do they know how their input has been used, and, if it hasn’t been used, do they know why? Are there business scenarios that give meaning to different stakeholder needs? Have stakeholder communities been built across business-unit lines? If stakeholders are minimally involved, don’t expect their commitment and follow-through to be high. Your initiative is likely to be on the back burner.
Are you missing your milestones and going over your budget? These are easy clues that the project is askew. One project I saw developed a detailed project plan over a 2-month period and then started to execute it. When problems occurred in the first 3 months, they decided to create an entirely new project plan, which of course took another 6 weeks. Other project areas need watching, too. Are requirements fully defined, documented, and signed off? Is the change control and escalation process effective?
By migration, I mean how you get there from here. What is the plan to go from the old environment to the new environment? Is there a short timetable to phase out the legacy process? Keeping the legacy process around allows people to use it instead of changing to the new process. Do employees understand job changes, and are they ready for these changes? Employees have to be ready, even though changes will occur once the migration has started. If employees aren’t ready, they will delay, block, revolt, or make lots of errors, all endangering the final results.
How Do I Get There from Here?
Now that you know the 9 most common ways initiatives get stuck in organizations, how do you avoid them?
Paul Hershey, founder of the Center for Leadership Studies, developed a Situational Leadership model to help managers determine how to interact with employees to get the best results. It looks like the 4-quadrant box above. The horizontal axis measures the employee’s skill level from low to high. The vertical axis measures the amount of interaction with the employee, again from low to high.
The 4-quadrant Situational Leadership model shows what leadership style to use in 4 different situations, based on the employee’s skill level and the level of relationship. New employees with low skill levels, who are new to the job, benefit from telling . As employees increase in skill level, selling them on the idea is best, explaining your decisions and allowing opportunity for clarification. When employees are at a higher skill levels use participating and finally delegating . In participating the leader shares ideas and involves others in the decision making. In delegating , when the follower is willing, able, and confident, the leader turns over responsibility for decisions and implementation.
The Situational Leadership model is a starting point for building a roadmap to work inside an organization, but with a change initiative the organizational environment is more complex. Instead of suggesting how one manager should approach a single employee, we need to work with multiple groups who do not report to the same manager. Often some of these groups – for example, customer, suppliers, or partners – are outside the organization, and each of these groups has special interests of its own.
Let me elaborate on the organizational model.
First you have to listen. You listen to them, they listen to you, and they listen to each other. Everyone hears the other’s point of view and begins to appreciate it. By listening (without judgment) we begin to understand and trust.
Once we have all been heard, the next step is to figure out What’s In It For Me (WIIFM). Each group knows it will be asked to do some work later, so they all want to know what they are going to get out of it. How will the initiative impact their job in the long run, and how will they benefit?
But you must go beyond WIIFM to What’s In It For Us (WIIFU). If we are going to work together outside our own business units, what’s the benefit to all of us? Two key benefits are helpful here – the benefit for the external customer, and the benefit for the organization as a whole. It’s best if you can quantify these benefits, and have proof. Customer testimonials are great; quantifiable results from early prototypes also help.
The third step in the model is aligning behind a common focus . Common Focus naturally builds arises from the first two phases. It starts with widening the circle of involvement to include the different stakeholder perspectives, demographics, and attitudes. When groups connect the parts of the system, understand the whole, and feel that their voices count, then they can find common ground and create a future focus. Focusing on the common future, rather than on the current problems and conflicts, releases energy and moves the project forward.
The fourth phase, Committed Action, occurs when groups identify actions that support the common focus. These actions will be short term and long term, and people should sign up for them out of passion. Cross-functional action teams form because individuals see how the parts are interconnected and recognize the need for different roles on each action team. Co-creating and alignment builds momentum. Accountability and responsibility follow.
If the model gives the framework and the principles of operation, how should you get started?
- Identify the key stakeholders. Start with the obvious ones, and then determine who has been left out. In one situation where I was working with a school district, we included students and teachers but left out paraprofessionals and staff. Later these groups were not eager to implement planned changes.
- Start by listening, preferably with the different stakeholders in the same room. Make sure you include internal and external stakeholders, and don’t leave people out because they are hard to reach. Go to them, and find creative ways to engage them. If you do listening out in the workplace, have mixed groups meet together to analyze and summarize results from the multiple listening sessions. What’s important is to involve the stakeholders with each other so you build connections. It’s also important that people know their voices count.
- Go observe in the workplace or work environment . Often you discover new things by observing instead of just asking questions. Observe what’s happening, where there are breakdowns, and where things are running smoothly. Notice how employees interact with other departments and when that works or doesn’t work. But do talk with employees as well. For example, ask about what they are doing and why they are doing it.
Watch Out for These Pitfalls!
It won’t always be easy sailing. There are pitfalls to look out for. I’ve listed a few below.
- Don’t say one thing and mean another . For example, when management says it wants to involve stakeholders but really knows what it wants already, employees soon learn that their input doesn’t count.
- Don’t expect the results to be different when you continue to stick with the same group of stakeholders. In one situation, the organization told me, “When we bring these groups together, they just promote the same old situation benefiting themselves. Nothing changes.” Of course! You must make the system larger, including clients, suppliers, partners, and leadership, so the groups can hear different points of view.
- Don’t start where you are instead of where your stakeholders are. As the project progresses, people on the core team become more knowledgeable and see the project is moving along. But others that are starting to work with you are just learning about the project. You can’t begin talking to them from your more experienced perspective. Instead you need to go back to the model and start at the beginning with 2-way listening. That way you lay the foundation that starts with seeing what you have in common and building trust.
A rapidly expanding software development company was successful with application development for individual customers but wanted to build standard applications that could serve as a framework for many customer applications. However, standard releases continuously missed deadlines, didn’t meet quality expectations, and had poor resources estimates. The company needed to revamp its process in order to get faster turnaround, higher quality, and lower costs.
What We Did and the Results
We helped the company create a new, unified standard application development process. After defining clear objectives with the Vice President of Software Development and Delivery and designating the process boundaries, we worked with a cross-functional team of 14 people including marketing, business analysts, developers, and operations from different areas of the US and Europe.
This group began with 2-way listening by explaining areas where the process wasn’t working for them and how they were affected. People with different roles and from different locations began to see how their work affected others in unexpected ways. As we redefined the boundaries of the project, people clarified “What’s In It For Me”.
The “What’s In It For Us” came from the need to create a standard process. All the team members were behind the benefit – keeping the company at the front of the market. They knew that a standard application development process would be faster and more efficient because they could offer customers tailored solutions built from standard modules. But groups could only get behind this purpose after they saw how their roles would contribute and how each part would integrate toward the total with anyone getting squeezed. That was especially important to the group that was implementing the application operationally with customers and at the end of the process, where time often gets cut short.
Common Focus came when we created the new process together. We agreed to several new working principles:
- Establishing go/no-go points with executive approval
- Utilizing a rapid prototyping method to provide early feedback and intelligent requirements scoping assessment
- Coordinating the standard application using Rational Rose, a systems methodology they were implementing.
Then the question arose: how would we take this plan into action? I knew we were on the right track when the group decided to use the standard application development process at once, with current projects that were midstream. They would apply the new application process at whatever stage the project was in, even though the process might not work perfectly. They would make adjustments as they learned.
They also spent considerable time clarifying roles and responsibility by functions. These discussions provided real-life scenarios to make the process more robust and practical. They identified ways to continue the discussion of roles with workers in the company as a means of engaging them with co-creating the new process. And we reminded ourselves of the importance of starting with 2-way listening as the group carried the new ideas forward to new groups in the workplace.
What were the results? When I checked back a few months later, the new standard application process was applied in current situations. Developers and implementers now participated in the early stages of the project so that feature choices, time frames, and costs estimates were more accurate. Rapid prototyping identified required functions and proved what was possible, enabling decision makers to evaluate the value of functions versus time and costs. Employees could see how their roles contributed to the big picture and made more effective choices in their work. Rapid prototyping and go/no-go decisions helped management and teams make earlier decisions and move faster to adjust or kill a project. And most importantly, the process set the standard to increase from 1 to 3 releases a year.
If you use the 4-box model on Getting Results from Your Organization, you will have the process and principles to get groups working together across the organization for a common purpose. This approach will produce faster results, more coordinated efforts, and empowered responsible employees.
There are 9 common reasons why initiatives fail. Although some are more likely to appear at the beginning of the initiative and others tend to occur later, each contributes to the success or failure of your project. So monitor them all.
Identify where your problem areas are and where you are strong, and then begin to build on your strengths and plan how to overcome the problem areas.
(If you want a free copy of a survey that enables you to evaluate how you are doing, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and mention this article.)