The Delivery Engine – Rediscovering Lost Lessons on Corporate Governance

To achieve successful transformations, malady leaders must develop a culture that celebrates implementation efforts at least as much as the genesis of new ideas.

By Ron Wiens

At a glance

compass
  • Many organizations value the idea of change more than the implementation effort required to realise the benefits of change. When this is true, large-scale transformations are likely to fail in achieving significant results.
  • Successful transformations focus on the implementation phase, in which doubts and criticism may make it difficult to maintain the strategic focus required for success. Leaders must have the courage to “map out a course of action and follow it to an end.”
  • Leaders need strategies for building a culture that emphasises, embraces, and thrives on the disciplined implementation of ideas.

Organizations are bloated with progressive ideas while suffering from a poverty of execution.

Have you ever considered that organizations are actually drowning in good ideas? Surely what all businesses crave are bright people putting forward lots of good ideas to improve their business and make it more successful? So, how can there be a problem with too many ideas?

The first problem is that new ideas are seductive. It is easy to fall in love with the next great idea before you have finished with the previous one. This changing of horses in mid-stream can become a habit, a habit that leads an organization to lose its strategic focus.

The second problem is that while organizations are willing to invest a great deal of creativity, concentration and time into ‘coming up’ with new ideas, they are reluctant to invest any where near the amount of creativity, concentration and time required to turn these ideas into business reality.

On their own, each of these problems adversely impacts the organization’s ability to deliver on its goals and objectives. But if you put them together, they become a powerful force for anchoring an organization in its past.

We love ideas – they are fun, they are stimulating, they engender debate, dialogue and they are not threatening, after all it is only an idea. There is not a whole lot of risk in coming up with an idea. If people don’t like my idea, I can alter it or quickly move on to another idea. If I can come up with a ‘great’ idea I will be seen as a ‘hero’ in my organization and rewarded accordingly. The problem is that an unimplemented (or poorly implemented) idea has no inherent value and there is the rub. Implementation involves a lot of tedious sweat and pain.

Rather than concentrating on implementing a few good ideas, the temptation for an organization is to be seduced by a flashy launch and a superficial implementation before moving on to the excitement of the next great idea. Many organizations whose leaders proclaim commitment to change often fail to achieve significant results because they have built a culture in which it is the idea itself that is valued and not the implementation effort required to realize the benefits. In such cultures, creativity is considered to be an intellectual proclivity for generating new ideas, new strategies, new policies and new action plans. In these cultures, the idea people are hoisted up on shoulders and paraded around the organization while the implementers are left starving for attention.

THE IDEAS ICEBERG

Ideas are like icebergs in that 90% of the effort involved lies below the surface.   You can think of the life-cycle of an idea as having two phases:

  • first phase - the generation/ formulation/ articulation of the idea
  • second phase - the implementation/ realization and sustainment of the benefits

The first phase (the generation of the idea), accounts for 10% or less of the total effort in the idea’s life cycle. New ideas are usually articulated to a small, like-minded audience of blue-sky thinkers, not a whole lot of pressure here. There is little accountability associated with the generation of ideas. In the world of ideas, the challenge of implementation belongs to someone else. 

In contrast, the implementation phase accounts for a whopping 90% of the total effort in the idea’s life cycle. Those tasked with implementing change are often dealing with an audience that sees no reason to change, that has to be wooed, persuaded and convinced to do things differently – and the implementers are held accountable for ensuring these people adopt the new ways. Implementing and sustaining the change required to make the idea real is difficult, time-consuming, and involves a lot of custom built communication, attention to detail, tedious toil, sweat and pain. Implementation involves change and change is always scary. This is why as the implementation starts to become real, the implementers often find themselves standing alone, not a fun place to be.

Like the iceberg, those working on creating new ideas are highly visible whereas those charged with bringing the ideas to fruition disappear below the surface and from the leaders’ radar for long periods of time. Is it little wonder that our bright young people who want to get ahead are drawn to idea generation and not idea implementation?

 

WHAT DRIVES SUCCESS?

There is a significant amount of research which shows what makes an organization successful and differentiates it from the competition is its ability to ‘stick to it’.

  • Jim Collins’ book Good To Great was based on seven years of research involving 1,435 Fortune 500 companies. His research concluded what moved a company to greatness in terms of its bottom-line performance was picking “one big thing and sticking to it’.
  • Nitin Nohria, William Joyce and Bruce Roberson, in their paper “What Really Works”, (Harvard Business Review, July 2003) followed 160 companies over a 10 year period. They concluded that strategy was less important than the ability to implement a strategy and that success came less from the specifics of any given strategy and more from the leader’s ability to highly focus their organization on the delivery of a single strategy.

Jack Welch, General Electric’s former CEO and one of the most successful business leaders of the twentieth centry in terms of bottom line performance, was known for picking one major change initiative and focusing his organization on it for 3 to 5 years.

Ideas are important and choosing the idea in which to invest is critical to an organization’s success. However, study after study demonstrates that the really successful organizations are differentiated from the rest by their ability to implement. Once an idea is chosen, the successful organizations are able to stay focussed and invest the time and resources required that transform the idea into their reality. Clearly, the competitive differentiator lies in the ‘land of implementation’ rather than in the ‘land of ideas’.

The iceberg model makes clear why this is so. An organization can easily generate many more ideas than it has the energy to realize. An organization that is unable to choose or attempts to ride multiple ideas under the mistaken assumption that this approach keeps their options open and thereby reduces risk is doomed to paying lip-service to the implementation process - there is simply too much to do. Many organizations have attempted one or more (usually more) of the three letter acronyms (e.g. TQM, BPR, CPI, etc) but few had what G.E. had under Jack Welch, namely, the implementation discipline required for success.

What the ‘great’ firms did was to “stick to it” and not allow other seductive opportunities to side-track them.

The research carried out by Collins and his team found that those firms that achieved a ‘great’ status did not spend any more time on strategic planning than the also-rans. What the ‘great’ firms did was to “stick to it” and not allow other seductive opportunities to side-track them.

By contrast, those firms that can not “stick to it” create a complexity in their organizations that end up driving their people away from investing their energy in the implementation process. Strategy is sacrifice, try to do everything and you have no plan, no hope, no future.

Strategy is sacrifice, try to do everything and you have no plan, no hope, no future.

WHY IS CHANGE SO HARD?

Organizations fail with change, in large part, because they have failed to build a discipline around the implementation of ideas.

In those cultures in which it is the idea and not the implementation that is valued, the leader will be constantly bombarded with alternate ideas that if listened to will distract and pull the organization off its strategic track. What those around the leader are saying often sounds intelligent and reasonable. As a leader, you don’t know for certain what the outcome of a current implementation is going to be and you feel fear. Leaders are human – and so they are tempted to give way to their fears and the voices recommending distraction. If they do, they abandon the implementation of the existing idea, start the implementation of a new idea, and the cycle of wasted effort repeats itself.

As launch day gets close, people who previously had no interest in the new idea start nay-saying, undermining your strategy, doubting your judgement, telling you to go here or there or stop altogether or telling you about a much better idea that should be swapped for the idea that is on the brink of implementation. Other people will get frightened and with the best of intentions undermine the action you have committed yourself to – and they will do this at a very senior level. When this happens, you need to go out of your way to support your implementers – be steadfast and enable these people to deliver in line with your strategy.

In the end, when the organization hops from idea to idea, little is accomplished, even though the organization expends a great deal of energy. This is where leaders lose credibility, resulting in their people abandoning the leader’s strategy and reverting back to their own ‘reliable’ agendas. In this situation, the organization starts to resemble the incandescent light bulb with energy going off in all directions.

Maintaining the strategic focus required for successful change is difficult. But in a culture that does not value the discipline of idea-implementation, it is all but impossible. As a leader you must not let your fears and doubts become the lens through which you view your organization’s way forward. As Ralph Waldo Emerson so eloquently said “Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage”.

BUILDING THE CULTURE

So how does a leader build a culture in which the disciplined implementation of ideas is valued?

Firstly, the leader needs to create a clear strategy for change and articulate the ideas chosen for implementation to all his/her people.

Secondly, the leader needs to ensure that his/her management team does not allow itself to act without first checking whether its proposed actions are aligned with the leader’s strategy. If there is a lack of discipline at the senior level around sticking to a common strategy, people will interpret this as a license to set their own direction. Energy that should be used to realize the leader’s strategy gets diluted into lots of mini-strategies. This leads to conflicting agendas and wasted energy.

Thirdly, the leader needs to redirect a large part of the energy and creativity reserved for idea generation into energy and creativity for delivering on implementation (see below ‘The Importance of Hope’).

Fourthly, the leader needs to pay attention to a governance process that manages the implementation phase. Leaders have to put some real effort into ensuring that a rigorous governance process is established. A process that:

  • ensures a solid implementation ‘action plan’ is produced for each ‘accepted’ idea,
  • builds a sense amongst those responsible, that they are going to be held accountable delivering on the ‘action plan’ for each accepted idea.

Fifthly, leaders need to visibly demonstrate through their actions that implementation and implementors are valued. Leaders generally feel more at home in the ‘land of ideas’ than they do in the ‘land of implementation’, and as a result there is a natural tendency for the leader to return back to the ‘land of ideas’ as quickly as possible. Building a culture that has the discipline of execution requires the leader to take up residency in the ‘land of implementation’.

THE IMPORTANCE OF HOPE

Your job, as a leader, is to keep your people focused on and excited about the implementation process. This will end up being your organization’s competitive delta.

The leader also needs to build hope. Ideas represent hope–hope for a new way, hope for a better way, and hope for change. This is why we like living in the ‘land of the idea’. On the other hand, when it comes to making the ideas real, things rarely work out as expected. As the implementation projects run into difficulty and we find that we are going to have to compromise on what we can actually deliver, hope turns into disappointment. And as the disappointment builds, people look for ways to abandon the implementation process and return back to the ‘land of purity’, the ‘land of ideas’. But the hope contained in the ‘land of ideas’ is illusionary, for as pointed out above; an unimplemented idea has no inherent value.   The challenge for the leader is to bring some of the hope that is so abundant in the idea generation phase into the implementation phase. The leader needs to put a significant amount of energy into helping those responsible for implementation to stay connected with the importance of what they are doing.   The implementors need to believe that if they are able to deliver on the original idea, even partially (after all business is one of those activities in which close often counts), that their work is going to make a real difference. It is this hope/belief that will cause people to become excited about entering and living in the ‘land of implementation’.

Yes, ideas represent hope and leaders that jump from idea to idea are trading on hope but eventually they end up hollowing out hope as the organization fails to deliver because it does not have the discipline to do so. When the bee hive is buzzing, you need to stay focused and remember that new ideas are often procrastination dressed-up as innovation. Your job, as a leader, is to keep your people focused on and excited about the implementation process. In the end, this will be your organization’s competitive delta.

THE NECESSITY OF DEVIATION – A REALITY CHECK

As a leader, there will always be times when you are required to make a decision that represents a deviation from your basic strategy. At these times you should:

  • Examine the case for deviation,
  • Weigh the benefits and costs,
  • If you decide to deviate, make explicit why you are doing so,
  • Communicate with your people what you are doing and why,
  • Return to your strategy when the need to deviate has passed.

Toby Ziegler is Director of Communications to President Bartlett in the TV series ‘The West Wing’. He is a pain in the backside and the audience often wonders “What purpose does Toby serve?” and “How did he ever get that job?

And indeed Toby was not the first or the second choice for the job, but as the complexities of his responsibility unfurl, he is undoubtedly an inspired appointment. Toby’s role is to constantly remind the President of his driving principles, his strategy, his goals and his priorities. The President of the United States is faced with many complex decisions and finds he cannot always adhere to his principles or his strategy. Toby’s role is to intervene whenever the President is about to deviate. He does not allow the President to deviate inadvertently or permissively. He forces the President to face the deviation and demands that he articulate his deviation and explain the reason for it.

The White House staff and the President find life with Toby difficult. But Toby creates the capacity for the President to return to his principles/strategy once the requirement to deviate is over. Toby prevents the President from becoming mentally/morally corrupted by the occasional requirement to abandon his principles.

The character of President Bartlett demonstrates leadership by allowing Toby to deliver the pain the President is so anxious to avoid, he ensures his own salvation and that of his Administration.

Every organization needs a Toby.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

ron

Ron Wiens has spent the past 30 years helping organizations build high performance cultures. His most recent book, titled ‘Building Organizations that Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound’ is a leader’s guide to culture as competitive advantage. To contact Ron, send him an email at ron@ronwiens.com

To achieve successful transformations, sale leaders must develop a culture that celebrates implementation efforts at least as much as the genesis of new ideas.

By Ron Wiens

At a glance

compass
  • Many organizations value the idea of change more than the implementation effort required to realise the benefits of change. When this is true, large-scale transformations are likely to fail in achieving significant results.
  • Successful transformations focus on the implementation phase, sickness in which doubts and criticism may make it difficult to maintain the strategic focus required for success. Leaders must have the courage to “map out a course of action and follow it to an end.”
  • Leaders need strategies for building a culture that emphasises, embraces, and thrives on the disciplined implementation of ideas.

Organizations are bloated with progressive ideas while suffering from a poverty of execution.

Have you ever considered that organizations are actually drowning in good ideas? Surely what all businesses crave are bright people putting forward lots of good ideas to improve their business and make it more successful? So, how can there be a problem with too many ideas?

The first problem is that new ideas are seductive. It is easy to fall in love with the next great idea before you have finished with the previous one. This changing of horses in mid-stream can become a habit, a habit that leads an organization to lose its strategic focus.

The second problem is that while organizations are willing to invest a great deal of creativity, concentration and time into ‘coming up’ with new ideas, they are reluctant to invest any where near the amount of creativity, concentration and time required to turn these ideas into business reality.

On their own, each of these problems adversely impacts the organization’s ability to deliver on its goals and objectives. But if you put them together, they become a powerful force for anchoring an organization in its past.

We love ideas – they are fun, they are stimulating, they engender debate, dialogue and they are not threatening, after all it is only an idea. There is not a whole lot of risk in coming up with an idea. If people don’t like my idea, I can alter it or quickly move on to another idea. If I can come up with a ‘great’ idea I will be seen as a ‘hero’ in my organization and rewarded accordingly. The problem is that an unimplemented (or poorly implemented) idea has no inherent value and there is the rub. Implementation involves a lot of tedious sweat and pain.

Rather than concentrating on implementing a few good ideas, the temptation for an organization is to be seduced by a flashy launch and a superficial implementation before moving on to the excitement of the next great idea. Many organizations whose leaders proclaim commitment to change often fail to achieve significant results because they have built a culture in which it is the idea itself that is valued and not the implementation effort required to realize the benefits. In such cultures, creativity is considered to be an intellectual proclivity for generating new ideas, new strategies, new policies and new action plans. In these cultures, the idea people are hoisted up on shoulders and paraded around the organization while the implementers are left starving for attention.

THE IDEAS ICEBERG

Ideas are like icebergs in that 90% of the effort involved lies below the surface.   You can think of the life-cycle of an idea as having two phases:

  • first phase - the generation/ formulation/ articulation of the idea
  • second phase - the implementation/ realization and sustainment of the benefits

The first phase (the generation of the idea), accounts for 10% or less of the total effort in the idea’s life cycle. New ideas are usually articulated to a small, like-minded audience of blue-sky thinkers, not a whole lot of pressure here. There is little accountability associated with the generation of ideas. In the world of ideas, the challenge of implementation belongs to someone else. 

In contrast, the implementation phase accounts for a whopping 90% of the total effort in the idea’s life cycle. Those tasked with implementing change are often dealing with an audience that sees no reason to change, that has to be wooed, persuaded and convinced to do things differently – and the implementers are held accountable for ensuring these people adopt the new ways. Implementing and sustaining the change required to make the idea real is difficult, time-consuming, and involves a lot of custom built communication, attention to detail, tedious toil, sweat and pain. Implementation involves change and change is always scary. This is why as the implementation starts to become real, the implementers often find themselves standing alone, not a fun place to be.

Like the iceberg, those working on creating new ideas are highly visible whereas those charged with bringing the ideas to fruition disappear below the surface and from the leaders’ radar for long periods of time. Is it little wonder that our bright young people who want to get ahead are drawn to idea generation and not idea implementation?

 

WHAT DRIVES SUCCESS?

There is a significant amount of research which shows what makes an organization successful and differentiates it from the competition is its ability to ‘stick to it’.

  • Jim Collins’ book Good To Great was based on seven years of research involving 1,435 Fortune 500 companies. His research concluded what moved a company to greatness in terms of its bottom-line performance was picking “one big thing and sticking to it’.
  • Nitin Nohria, William Joyce and Bruce Roberson, in their paper “What Really Works”, (Harvard Business Review, July 2003) followed 160 companies over a 10 year period. They concluded that strategy was less important than the ability to implement a strategy and that success came less from the specifics of any given strategy and more from the leader’s ability to highly focus their organization on the delivery of a single strategy.

Jack Welch, General Electric’s former CEO and one of the most successful business leaders of the twentieth centry in terms of bottom line performance, was known for picking one major change initiative and focusing his organization on it for 3 to 5 years.

Ideas are important and choosing the idea in which to invest is critical to an organization’s success. However, study after study demonstrates that the really successful organizations are differentiated from the rest by their ability to implement. Once an idea is chosen, the successful organizations are able to stay focussed and invest the time and resources required that transform the idea into their reality. Clearly, the competitive differentiator lies in the ‘land of implementation’ rather than in the ‘land of ideas’.

The iceberg model makes clear why this is so. An organization can easily generate many more ideas than it has the energy to realize. An organization that is unable to choose or attempts to ride multiple ideas under the mistaken assumption that this approach keeps their options open and thereby reduces risk is doomed to paying lip-service to the implementation process - there is simply too much to do. Many organizations have attempted one or more (usually more) of the three letter acronyms (e.g. TQM, BPR, CPI, etc) but few had what G.E. had under Jack Welch, namely, the implementation discipline required for success.

What the ‘great’ firms did was to “stick to it” and not allow other seductive opportunities to side-track them.

The research carried out by Collins and his team found that those firms that achieved a ‘great’ status did not spend any more time on strategic planning than the also-rans. What the ‘great’ firms did was to “stick to it” and not allow other seductive opportunities to side-track them.

By contrast, those firms that can not “stick to it” create a complexity in their organizations that end up driving their people away from investing their energy in the implementation process. Strategy is sacrifice, try to do everything and you have no plan, no hope, no future.

Strategy is sacrifice, try to do everything and you have no plan, no hope, no future.

WHY IS CHANGE SO HARD?

Organizations fail with change, in large part, because they have failed to build a discipline around the implementation of ideas.

In those cultures in which it is the idea and not the implementation that is valued, the leader will be constantly bombarded with alternate ideas that if listened to will distract and pull the organization off its strategic track. What those around the leader are saying often sounds intelligent and reasonable. As a leader, you don’t know for certain what the outcome of a current implementation is going to be and you feel fear. Leaders are human – and so they are tempted to give way to their fears and the voices recommending distraction. If they do, they abandon the implementation of the existing idea, start the implementation of a new idea, and the cycle of wasted effort repeats itself.

As launch day gets close, people who previously had no interest in the new idea start nay-saying, undermining your strategy, doubting your judgement, telling you to go here or there or stop altogether or telling you about a much better idea that should be swapped for the idea that is on the brink of implementation. Other people will get frightened and with the best of intentions undermine the action you have committed yourself to – and they will do this at a very senior level. When this happens, you need to go out of your way to support your implementers – be steadfast and enable these people to deliver in line with your strategy.

In the end, when the organization hops from idea to idea, little is accomplished, even though the organization expends a great deal of energy. This is where leaders lose credibility, resulting in their people abandoning the leader’s strategy and reverting back to their own ‘reliable’ agendas. In this situation, the organization starts to resemble the incandescent light bulb with energy going off in all directions.

Maintaining the strategic focus required for successful change is difficult. But in a culture that does not value the discipline of idea-implementation, it is all but impossible. As a leader you must not let your fears and doubts become the lens through which you view your organization’s way forward. As Ralph Waldo Emerson so eloquently said “Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage”.

BUILDING THE CULTURE

So how does a leader build a culture in which the disciplined implementation of ideas is valued?

Firstly, the leader needs to create a clear strategy for change and articulate the ideas chosen for implementation to all his/her people.

Secondly, the leader needs to ensure that his/her management team does not allow itself to act without first checking whether its proposed actions are aligned with the leader’s strategy. If there is a lack of discipline at the senior level around sticking to a common strategy, people will interpret this as a license to set their own direction. Energy that should be used to realize the leader’s strategy gets diluted into lots of mini-strategies. This leads to conflicting agendas and wasted energy.

Thirdly, the leader needs to redirect a large part of the energy and creativity reserved for idea generation into energy and creativity for delivering on implementation (see below ‘The Importance of Hope’).

Fourthly, the leader needs to pay attention to a governance process that manages the implementation phase. Leaders have to put some real effort into ensuring that a rigorous governance process is established. A process that:

  • ensures a solid implementation ‘action plan’ is produced for each ‘accepted’ idea,
  • builds a sense amongst those responsible, that they are going to be held accountable delivering on the ‘action plan’ for each accepted idea.

Fifthly, leaders need to visibly demonstrate through their actions that implementation and implementors are valued. Leaders generally feel more at home in the ‘land of ideas’ than they do in the ‘land of implementation’, and as a result there is a natural tendency for the leader to return back to the ‘land of ideas’ as quickly as possible. Building a culture that has the discipline of execution requires the leader to take up residency in the ‘land of implementation’.

THE IMPORTANCE OF HOPE

Your job, as a leader, is to keep your people focused on and excited about the implementation process. This will end up being your organization’s competitive delta.

The leader also needs to build hope. Ideas represent hope–hope for a new way, hope for a better way, and hope for change. This is why we like living in the ‘land of the idea’. On the other hand, when it comes to making the ideas real, things rarely work out as expected. As the implementation projects run into difficulty and we find that we are going to have to compromise on what we can actually deliver, hope turns into disappointment. And as the disappointment builds, people look for ways to abandon the implementation process and return back to the ‘land of purity’, the ‘land of ideas’. But the hope contained in the ‘land of ideas’ is illusionary, for as pointed out above; an unimplemented idea has no inherent value.   The challenge for the leader is to bring some of the hope that is so abundant in the idea generation phase into the implementation phase. The leader needs to put a significant amount of energy into helping those responsible for implementation to stay connected with the importance of what they are doing.   The implementors need to believe that if they are able to deliver on the original idea, even partially (after all business is one of those activities in which close often counts), that their work is going to make a real difference. It is this hope/belief that will cause people to become excited about entering and living in the ‘land of implementation’.

Yes, ideas represent hope and leaders that jump from idea to idea are trading on hope but eventually they end up hollowing out hope as the organization fails to deliver because it does not have the discipline to do so. When the bee hive is buzzing, you need to stay focused and remember that new ideas are often procrastination dressed-up as innovation. Your job, as a leader, is to keep your people focused on and excited about the implementation process. In the end, this will be your organization’s competitive delta.

THE NECESSITY OF DEVIATION – A REALITY CHECK

As a leader, there will always be times when you are required to make a decision that represents a deviation from your basic strategy. At these times you should:

  • Examine the case for deviation,
  • Weigh the benefits and costs,
  • If you decide to deviate, make explicit why you are doing so,
  • Communicate with your people what you are doing and why,
  • Return to your strategy when the need to deviate has passed.

Toby Ziegler is Director of Communications to President Bartlett in the TV series ‘The West Wing’. He is a pain in the backside and the audience often wonders “What purpose does Toby serve?” and “How did he ever get that job?

And indeed Toby was not the first or the second choice for the job, but as the complexities of his responsibility unfurl, he is undoubtedly an inspired appointment. Toby’s role is to constantly remind the President of his driving principles, his strategy, his goals and his priorities. The President of the United States is faced with many complex decisions and finds he cannot always adhere to his principles or his strategy. Toby’s role is to intervene whenever the President is about to deviate. He does not allow the President to deviate inadvertently or permissively. He forces the President to face the deviation and demands that he articulate his deviation and explain the reason for it.

The White House staff and the President find life with Toby difficult. But Toby creates the capacity for the President to return to his principles/strategy once the requirement to deviate is over. Toby prevents the President from becoming mentally/morally corrupted by the occasional requirement to abandon his principles.

The character of President Bartlett demonstrates leadership by allowing Toby to deliver the pain the President is so anxious to avoid, he ensures his own salvation and that of his Administration.

Every organization needs a Toby.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

ron

Ron Wiens has spent the past 30 years helping organizations build high performance cultures. His most recent book, titled ‘Building Organizations that Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound’ is a leader’s guide to culture as competitive advantage. To contact Ron, send him an email at ron@ronwiens.com

To achieve successful transformations, cialis leaders must develop a culture that celebrates implementation efforts at least as much as the genesis of new ideas.

By Ron Wiens

At a glance

compass
  • Many organizations value the idea of change more than the implementation effort required to realise the benefits of change. When this is true, large-scale transformations are likely to fail in achieving significant results.
  • Successful transformations focus on the implementation phase, in which doubts and criticism may make it difficult to maintain the strategic focus required for success. Leaders must have the courage to “map out a course of action and follow it to an end.”
  • Leaders need strategies for building a culture that emphasises, embraces, and thrives on the disciplined implementation of ideas.

Organizations are bloated with progressive ideas while suffering from a poverty of execution.

Have you ever considered that organizations are actually drowning in good ideas? Surely what all businesses crave are bright people putting forward lots of good ideas to improve their business and make it more successful? So, how can there be a problem with too many ideas?

The first problem is that new ideas are seductive. It is easy to fall in love with the next great idea before you have finished with the previous one. This changing of horses in mid-stream can become a habit, a habit that leads an organization to lose its strategic focus.

The second problem is that while organizations are willing to invest a great deal of creativity, concentration and time into ‘coming up’ with new ideas, they are reluctant to invest any where near the amount of creativity, concentration and time required to turn these ideas into business reality.

On their own, each of these problems adversely impacts the organization’s ability to deliver on its goals and objectives. But if you put them together, they become a powerful force for anchoring an organization in its past.

We love ideas – they are fun, they are stimulating, they engender debate, dialogue and they are not threatening, after all it is only an idea. There is not a whole lot of risk in coming up with an idea.

If people don’t like my idea, I can alter it or quickly move on to another idea. If I can come up with a ‘great’ idea I will be seen as a ‘hero’ in my organization and rewarded accordingly. The problem is that an unimplemented (or poorly implemented) idea has no inherent value and there is the rub. Implementation involves a lot of tedious sweat and pain.

Rather than concentrating on implementing a few good ideas, the temptation for an organization is to be seduced by a flashy launch and a superficial implementation before moving on to the excitement of the next great idea. Many organizations whose leaders proclaim commitment to change often fail to achieve significant results because they have built a culture in which it is the idea itself that is valued and not the implementation effort required to realize the benefits. In such cultures, creativity is considered to be an intellectual proclivity for generating new ideas, new strategies, new policies and new action plans. In these cultures, the idea people are hoisted up on shoulders and paraded around the organization while the implementers are left starving for attention.

THE IDEAS ICEBERG

Ideas are like icebergs in that 90% of the effort involved lies below the surface.   You can think of the life-cycle of an idea as having two phases:

  • first phase - the generation/ formulation/ articulation of the idea
  • second phase - the implementation/ realization and sustainment of the benefits

The first phase (the generation of the idea), accounts for 10% or less of the total effort in the idea’s life cycle. New ideas are usually articulated to a small, like-minded audience of blue-sky thinkers, not a whole lot of pressure here. There is little accountability associated with the generation of ideas. In the world of ideas, the challenge of implementation belongs to someone else. 

In contrast, the implementation phase accounts for a whopping 90% of the total effort in the idea’s life cycle. Those tasked with implementing change are often dealing with an audience that sees no reason to change, that has to be wooed, persuaded and convinced to do things differently – and the implementers are held accountable for ensuring these people adopt the new ways. Implementing and sustaining the change required to make the idea real is difficult, time-consuming, and involves a lot of custom built communication, attention to detail, tedious toil, sweat and pain. Implementation involves change and change is always scary. This is why as the implementation starts to become real, the implementers often find themselves standing alone, not a fun place to be.

Like the iceberg, those working on creating new ideas are highly visible whereas those charged with bringing the ideas to fruition disappear below the surface and from the leaders’ radar for long periods of time. Is it little wonder that our bright young people who want to get ahead are drawn to idea generation and not idea implementation?

 

WHAT DRIVES SUCCESS?

There is a significant amount of research which shows what makes an organization successful and differentiates it from the competition is its ability to ‘stick to it’.

  • Jim Collins’ book Good To Great was based on seven years of research involving 1,435 Fortune 500 companies. His research concluded what moved a company to greatness in terms of its bottom-line performance was picking “one big thing and sticking to it’.
  • Nitin Nohria, William Joyce and Bruce Roberson, in their paper “What Really Works”, (Harvard Business Review, July 2003) followed 160 companies over a 10 year period. They concluded that strategy was less important than the ability to implement a strategy and that success came less from the specifics of any given strategy and more from the leader’s ability to highly focus their organization on the delivery of a single strategy.

Jack Welch, General Electric’s former CEO and one of the most successful business leaders of the twentieth centry in terms of bottom line performance, was known for picking one major change initiative and focusing his organization on it for 3 to 5 years.

Ideas are important and choosing the idea in which to invest is critical to an organization’s success. However, study after study demonstrates that the really successful organizations are differentiated from the rest by their ability to implement. Once an idea is chosen, the successful organizations are able to stay focussed and invest the time and resources required that transform the idea into their reality. Clearly, the competitive differentiator lies in the ‘land of implementation’ rather than in the ‘land of ideas’.

The iceberg model makes clear why this is so. An organization can easily generate many more ideas than it has the energy to realize. An organization that is unable to choose or attempts to ride multiple ideas under the mistaken assumption that this approach keeps their options open and thereby reduces risk is doomed to paying lip-service to the implementation process - there is simply too much to do. Many organizations have attempted one or more (usually more) of the three letter acronyms (e.g. TQM, BPR, CPI, etc) but few had what G.E. had under Jack Welch, namely, the implementation discipline required for success.

What the ‘great’ firms did was to “stick to it” and not allow other seductive opportunities to side-track them.

The research carried out by Collins and his team found that those firms that achieved a ‘great’ status did not spend any more time on strategic planning than the also-rans. What the ‘great’ firms did was to “stick to it” and not allow other seductive opportunities to side-track them.

By contrast, those firms that can not “stick to it” create a complexity in their organizations that end up driving their people away from investing their energy in the implementation process. Strategy is sacrifice, try to do everything and you have no plan, no hope, no future.

Strategy is sacrifice, try to do everything and you have no plan, no hope, no future.

WHY IS CHANGE SO HARD?

Organizations fail with change, in large part, because they have failed to build a discipline around the implementation of ideas.

In those cultures in which it is the idea and not the implementation that is valued, the leader will be constantly bombarded with alternate ideas that if listened to will distract and pull the organization off its strategic track. What those around the leader are saying often sounds intelligent and reasonable. As a leader, you don’t know for certain what the outcome of a current implementation is going to be and you feel fear. Leaders are human – and so they are tempted to give way to their fears and the voices recommending distraction. If they do, they abandon the implementation of the existing idea, start the implementation of a new idea, and the cycle of wasted effort repeats itself.

As launch day gets close, people who previously had no interest in the new idea start nay-saying, undermining your strategy, doubting your judgement, telling you to go here or there or stop altogether or telling you about a much better idea that should be swapped for the idea that is on the brink of implementation.

Other people will get frightened and with the best of intentions undermine the action you have committed yourself to – and they will do this at a very senior level. When this happens, you need to go out of your way to support your implementers – be steadfast and enable these people to deliver in line with your strategy.

In the end, when the organization hops from idea to idea, little is accomplished, even though the organization expends a great deal of energy. This is where leaders lose credibility, resulting in their people abandoning the leader’s strategy and reverting back to their own ‘reliable’ agendas. In this situation, the organization starts to resemble the incandescent light bulb with energy going off in all directions.

Maintaining the strategic focus required for successful change is difficult. But in a culture that does not value the discipline of idea-implementation, it is all but impossible. As a leader you must not let your fears and doubts become the lens through which you view your organization’s way forward. As Ralph Waldo Emerson so eloquently said “Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage”.

BUILDING THE CULTURE

So how does a leader build a culture in which the disciplined implementation of ideas is valued?

Firstly, the leader needs to create a clear strategy for change and articulate the ideas chosen for implementation to all his/her people.

Secondly, the leader needs to ensure that his/her management team does not allow itself to act without first checking whether its proposed actions are aligned with the leader’s strategy. If there is a lack of discipline at the senior level around sticking to a common strategy, people will interpret this as a license to set their own direction. Energy that should be used to realize the leader’s strategy gets diluted into lots of mini-strategies. This leads to conflicting agendas and wasted energy.

Thirdly, the leader needs to redirect a large part of the energy and creativity reserved for idea generation into energy and creativity for delivering on implementation (see below ‘The Importance of Hope’).

Fourthly, the leader needs to pay attention to a governance process that manages the implementation phase. Leaders have to put some real effort into ensuring that a rigorous governance process is established. A process that:

  • ensures a solid implementation ‘action plan’ is produced for each ‘accepted’ idea,
  • builds a sense amongst those responsible, that they are going to be held accountable delivering on the ‘action plan’ for each accepted idea.

Fifthly, leaders need to visibly demonstrate through their actions that implementation and implementors are valued. Leaders generally feel more at home in the ‘land of ideas’ than they do in the ‘land of implementation’, and as a result there is a natural tendency for the leader to return back to the ‘land of ideas’ as quickly as possible. Building a culture that has the discipline of execution requires the leader to take up residency in the ‘land of implementation’.

THE IMPORTANCE OF HOPE

Your job, as a leader, is to keep your people focused on and excited about the implementation process. This will end up being your organization’s competitive delta.

The leader also needs to build hope. Ideas represent hope–hope for a new way, hope for a better way, and hope for change. This is why we like living in the ‘land of the idea’. On the other hand, when it comes to making the ideas real, things rarely work out as expected. As the implementation projects run into difficulty and we find that we are going to have to compromise on what we can actually deliver, hope turns into disappointment. And as the disappointment builds, people look for ways to abandon the implementation process and return back to the ‘land of purity’, the ‘land of ideas’. But the hope contained in the ‘land of ideas’ is illusionary, for as pointed out above; an unimplemented idea has no inherent value.   The challenge for the leader is to bring some of the hope that is so abundant in the idea generation phase into the implementation phase. The leader needs to put a significant amount of energy into helping those responsible for implementation to stay connected with the importance of what they are doing.   The implementors need to believe that if they are able to deliver on the original idea, even partially (after all business is one of those activities in which close often counts), that their work is going to make a real difference. It is this hope/belief that will cause people to become excited about entering and living in the ‘land of implementation’.

Yes, ideas represent hope and leaders that jump from idea to idea are trading on hope but eventually they end up hollowing out hope as the organization fails to deliver because it does not have the discipline to do so. When the bee hive is buzzing, you need to stay focused and remember that new ideas are often procrastination dressed-up as innovation. Your job, as a leader, is to keep your people focused on and excited about the implementation process. In the end, this will be your organization’s competitive delta.

THE NECESSITY OF DEVIATION – A REALITY CHECK

As a leader, there will always be times when you are required to make a decision that represents a deviation from your basic strategy. At these times you should:

  • Examine the case for deviation,
  • Weigh the benefits and costs,
  • If you decide to deviate, make explicit why you are doing so,
  • Communicate with your people what you are doing and why,
  • Return to your strategy when the need to deviate has passed.

Toby Ziegler is Director of Communications to President Bartlett in the TV series ‘The West Wing’. He is a pain in the backside and the audience often wonders “What purpose does Toby serve?” and “How did he ever get that job?

And indeed Toby was not the first or the second choice for the job, but as the complexities of his responsibility unfurl, he is undoubtedly an inspired appointment. Toby’s role is to constantly remind the President of his driving principles, his strategy, his goals and his priorities. The President of the United States is faced with many complex decisions and finds he cannot always adhere to his principles or his strategy. Toby’s role is to intervene whenever the President is about to deviate. He does not allow the President to deviate inadvertently or permissively. He forces the President to face the deviation and demands that he articulate his deviation and explain the reason for it.

The White House staff and the President find life with Toby difficult. But Toby creates the capacity for the President to return to his principles/strategy once the requirement to deviate is over. Toby prevents the President from becoming mentally/morally corrupted by the occasional requirement to abandon his principles.

The character of President Bartlett demonstrates leadership by allowing Toby to deliver the pain the President is so anxious to avoid, he ensures his own salvation and that of his Administration.

Every organization needs a Toby.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

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Ron Wiens has spent the past 30 years helping organizations build high performance cultures. His most recent book, titled ‘Building Organizations that Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound’ is a leader’s guide to culture as competitive advantage. To contact Ron, send him an email at ron@ronwiens.com

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The first step in almost any program for change is the building of a culture that embraces and thrives on the disciplined implementation of ideas. The Delivery Engine accelerates the development of such a culture.

By Ron Wiens

At a glance

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  • The Delivery Engine is a simple set of processes that help to build, tadalafil across an organization, a sense of accountability for on-time and on-budget delivery.
  • The Delivery Engine keeps an organization focused on its priorities for change. It helps the members of the organization understand their organization’s change strategy and in so doing helps to build commitment to the success of the whole.
  • For all its simplicity, the Delivery Engine grows an organization’s ability to turn its strategy for change into a reality. It does so by teaching workers, at all levels, how to manage and work together.

Over the past 40 years something extraordinary has been happening in organizations. The staff and management who populate them have been getting progressively smarter, at least when measured by their education, ongoing training and number of books read. Paradoxically, the organizations themselves seemed to have become dumber.

Organizations have lost much of their ability for the disciplined delivery of change.

What is the nature of this organizational dumbing down, you ask? Well, it takes the form of basic governance processes that seem to have virtually vanished. Basic processes such as regular written status reports and the production of project plans, to name two, have become a thing of the past for a surprisingly large number of organizations. Project planning, for example, seems to have become something with little more than a beginning and an end with nothing of substance in-between.

The impact of this dumbing down is that organizations have lost much of their ability for the disciplined delivery of change. In these dumbed-down organizations, lots gets started but little gets delivered – and what is delivered is usually late and over budget, often significantly so.

The bulk of this dumbing down seems to have taken place between 1985 and 1995. This period corresponds with the era of process re-engineering and the mass introduction of both personal computers and the Internet. The re-engineering was driven by the need to reduce costs, a direct result of increased global competition. The view that was taken, however, was a short-term one, with the result that the baby got thrown out with the proverbial bathwater. Processes were not only re-engineered, but processes that were deemed bureaucratic were eliminated. Sounds like good stuff, right? Well yes, except for that “short-term” thing. There are processes that you can live without in the short-term but whose continued absence tends to lead to long-term chaos. Many governance processes fall into this category.

The introduction of the personal computer was part of another global phenomenon – the speeding up of just about everything. The scale of this speeding up is best understood through an observation made by Dr. Nick Bontis from McMaster University in his keynote presentation at KM World in Hamilton, Ontario, in 2000: “In the 1930s, the cumulative codified (i.e., written down) knowledge base of the world doubled every 30 years…. In the 1970s, the cumulative codified knowledge base of the world doubled every seven years.” Bontis’s prediction in 2000 was that by 2010 the world’s cumulative codified knowledge base would double every 11 hours.

We may or may not have reached this 11-hour figure but what we do know for certain is that we now live and work in a world in which knowledge, AKA opportunity, AKA the need for change, is growing exponentially.

If an organization has lost its ability for disciplined delivery, then in essence it has lost the ability to change.

Organizations and the people who populate them responded to this global speeding up by trying to do more – they worked longer and they worked harder, speed being a euphemism for “the universe has just become a whole lot more competitive.” One-way of dealing with this competitive universe is to be more “in the moment” to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. This is what many organizations and their people did – they focused on what was in their face. When you focus on the here and now, you don’t have the time or the energy to worry much about tomorrow. A large part of governance relates to delivering the future – so governance processes became less relevant to these fast, in-the-moment organizations. In fact, governance even became a dirty word – it was seen as limiting the speed and creativity of the organization. And so governance rigour fell by the wayside.

All of this brings us to where we are, organizationally speaking, today. Many, if not most, organizations have lost the capacity for disciplined delivery. Now, we are living in a time of constant change. Constant change requires an organization to think strategically about its future and to continually initiate and manage a significant number of change projects. The purpose of these projects is to evolve the organization to keep it relevant in a changing universe. But here’s the rub: if an organization has lost its ability for disciplined delivery, then in essence it has lost the ability to change.

If anything, governance is even more relevant in a changing world. Governance keeps an organization focused on its strategic choices. We live in a time of immense distraction. There are more things requiring our attention than there are hours in the day to do them. Organizations have become critically dependent on the ability of their people to stay focused on the organization’s strategic priorities.

THE VALUE OF DISCIPLINE

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, tells the story of how biotechnology company Amgen went from being a start-up to a $3.2 billion company with 6,400 employees. Amgen’s cofounder, George Rathmann, attributed his company’s success to the simple governance rigour he learned early in his career, working at Abbott Laboratories.

“What I got from Abbott was the idea that when you set your objectives for the year, you record them in concrete. You can change your plans through the year, but you never change what you measure yourself against. … You never just focus on what you’ve accomplished for the year; you focus on what you’ve accomplished relative to exactly what you said you were going to accomplish – no matter how tough the measure.”

A key part of Rathmann’s learning was that creativity flowed from rigour in delivery when it was combined with freedom. Abbott allowed its managers the freedom to set their own paths, but at the same time people were held rigorously accountable for meeting objectives. The result of what Collins called “freedom within a framework” was that creativity was “woven into the very fabric” of Abbott’s culture.

It appears that accountability combined with freedom is a powerful catalyst for success.

Every day, people make choices about where they will and will not put their time and energy. They make choices about what will and will not get done. When governance is weak or absent, the distractions (i.e., today’s fires) block strategic movement. The lack of governance actually limits the speed of the organization. Rapid movement requires strategic intent. You have to know which fires to put out and which ones to let burn. Organizations that live in the moment are trying to do everything well, but when you try to do everything, you have no strategy, no plan, no hope and most importantly, no future.

Paradoxically, weak governance actually limits creativity. If it is my job to deliver a certain outcome and if I do not feel the pressure of time and budget constraints then I can always take the easy way out; that is, there is no need for original thought here. If next week, next month or next year is good enough then I can just plod along. No need to tax the old grey cells. A culture of disciplined delivery is the foundation for a culture of creative thinking (see box, The Value of Discipline).

Charles Darwin pointed out that it’s not the biggest, the brightest or the best that survive, but those that adapt the quickest. The absence of governance limits an organization’s ability to adapt. The legacy of the re-engineering of the 1990s has been to turn our organizations into change adverse dinosaurs. Can it get any worse?

The answer is, “yes it can.” We now have in place a whole generation of workers and managers who have grown up in the era of weak governance and who do not recognize the benefits of formal governance processes. All of this means that the return to a strong governance model, one that contributes to the building of a culture of disciplined delivery, will involve managing a lot of resistance to change.

WHAT DRIVES SUCCESS

Nitin Nohria, William Joyce and Bruce Roberson, in their paper “What Really Works” (Harvard Business Review, July 2003) followed 160 companies for 10 years. They concluded that strategy was less important than the ability to implement a strategy and that success came less from the specifics of any given strategy and more from the leader’s ability to highly focus their organisation on the delivery of a single strategy.

Jim Collins’s book Good to Great was based on seven years of research involving 1,435 Fortune 500 companies. His research concluded that what moved a company to greatness in terms of its bottom-line performance was picking one big thing and sticking to it.

Jack Welch, General Electric’s former CEO and one of the most successful business leaders of the 20th centry in terms of bottom-line performance, was known for picking one major change initiative and focusing his organisation on it for three to five years.

Ideas are important and choosing the idea in which to invest is critical to an organisation’s success. However, study after study demonstrates that the really successful organisations are differentiated from the rest by their ability to implement.

The good news is that once people have lived with a strong governance model for a while (a while being, in my experience, in the neighbourhood of 18 months) they don’t want to go back. Why? Well, they find that the new governance processes actually help them manage their workload. Management starts to appreciate just how much people have on their plate and so to-do lists start to become a whole lot more reasonable. These governance processes help the organization and its people maintain a strategic focus, with the result that projects are seen through to completion. People get an increased sense of success as they see themselves delivering projects that are aligned with the organization’s strategic intent. People see themselves as successful. They get an appetite for success and the organization finds itself en route to a high-performance culture – all because of a few simple “bureaucratic” processes.

Who would have guessed?

So what does a governance process that builds a culture of disciplined delivery look like? Well, it looks incredibly simple. I refer to it as the Delivery Engine.

Organizations fail at change in large part because they have failed to build the discipline around the implementation of change. What makes an organization successful and differentiates it from the competition is its capacity for disciplined delivery. The key to organizational success is not the brilliance of the change strategy but rather the ability of the organization’s people to stick to it (see box, What Drives Success). The first step in almost any program for change is building a culture that emphasizes, embraces and thrives on the disciplined implementation of ideas. The Delivery Engine is a simple, straightforward set of processes for accelerating the development of such a culture.

The Delivery Engine is made up of three components: the Terms of Reference, Status Reporting and the War Room (visible project plans).

1. TERMS OF REFERENCE

The purpose of a Terms of Reference (TOR) is to document a change project in terms of its scope, cost, risk, target benefits, success measures and an initial high-level project plan. Under a Delivery Engine approach, the rule is that no work (i.e., no change project) can start without an approved TOR. As well, a TOR cannot be more than one double-sided page in length (there is competitive advantage in brevity). Once a project is started, any change to the budget, timeline or scope, as specified in the original TOR, must go through a formal change management process. Below is a sample two-page TOR.

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Figure 1. Sample Terms of Reference

The TOR process ensures that all work is aligned with the organization’s strategic objectives. The TOR leaves no place for a project to hide and in so doing helps to eliminate the well-intentioned but misaligned “pet” project.

It should be noted, though, that some very successful, high profile organizations have used the pet project approach as a deliberate innovation strategy. In the 1950s 3M introduced the concept of giving employees a certain amount of time (in 3M’s case it was 15% of the employee’s work week) to work on whatever they wanted. For 3M this led to the development of such things as masking tape and Post-It Notes. More recently, companies like Google, LinkedIn, Facebook and Microsoft have followed a similar course. Google, for example, allows its staff to spend up to 20% of the workweek on pet projects. Google’s co-founder and CEO, Larry Page, however, recently declared that Google needs to focus on “more wood behind fewer arrows.” Translation: Google needs fewer ideas and more implementation.

The TOR gives managers the ability to proactively manage.

The TOR process helps people connect the strategic dots and builds, across the organization, a collective big-picture understanding of the change goals.

In one organization we were advising, the vice president complained that a lot of work got started but little was being delivered. When we asked how many projects were currently underway or in the planning phase, his response was that he thought it was somewhere around 25. The uncertainty in the response was a concern so we suggested that he order “pens down” and ask for TORs to be completed for all work currently underway or being planned. When the bundle of TORs finally hit his desk, it turned out that his organization was working on or about to launch 155 different projects, an incredible number, especially considering that his organization had only a fraction of the resources required to complete these projects. No wonder that even though everyone was being run off their feet so little was actually being delivered. Needless to say, the VP was shocked to see how out of control his organization was.

The TOR gives managers the ability to proactively manage. The TOR clarifies not only what is to be delivered but also how it is to be delivered. It does so by breaking down the project into a sequence of interim deliverables, each with its own target delivery date. As such, a failure to deliver is now reduced to a failure to deliver on a specific milestone. So, we are no longer looking at a failed project but rather at a failure milestone.

This proactive approach affords the manager the opportunity to intervene while the project’s problems are still molehills and to take the corrective action needed to bring the project, as a whole, back on track.

The TOR process clarifies for the entire organization what is being worked on and the outcomes to be delivered. In short, the TOR process helps people connect the strategic dots and builds, across the organization, a collective big-picture understanding of the change goals. This, in turn, facilitates the development of a culture in which its members are working together for the success of the whole.

2. STATUS REPORTING

Inside organizations, especially in these times of constant change, there are a lot of competing agendas vying for people’s attention and time. It is now the norm that on any given day, people have more to do than they can get done that day. It is not uncommon for people’s to-do lists to be longer at the end of the day than they were at its beginning.

Now more than ever, every manager’s challenge is to keep staff focused on what is important.

It used to be the manager’s job to be strategic; to decide what gets done and what gets ignored. But the world is moving too rapidly and a significant part of this challenge has landed on the shoulders of the organization’s front-line workers. Every day, in knowledge-worker organizations around the world, workers at all levels are deciding what to focus on. Now more than ever, every manager’s challenge is to keep staff focused on what is important. Status reporting is a simple yet wonderfully powerful tool for helping to meet this challenge.

 

 

In the Delivery Engine approach, every week, all staff members submit status reports that delineate the previous week’s accomplishments and what they understand to be the target accomplishments for the coming week. Each manager, in turn, submits a summary status report to his or her manager that makes clear the status of each project he or she is responsible for.

There are many variations in what makes up a status report; a sample report format is shown below.

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Figure 2. Sample status report template

The report format is standardized across the organization and follows a traffic-light approach:

  • Green means the project (or activity, depending of the level of the person doing the reporting) is on time and on budget;
  • Yellow means the project or activity has issues but the author has a mitigation strategy;
  • Red means a change is required to the project’s or activity’s timeline, budget or scope).

So what is the value of status reporting? First, it regularly reminds people of the delivery commitments they made. It is this constant reminder that enables people to hold these commitments uppermost in their minds. And so, with this ever-present reminder, they have a better idea, as they plan their day, of what to focus on and what to allow to fall off the table.

Secondly, it affords a dialogue between individuals and their managers – a dialogue that gets people asking for help sooner rather than later. Also, this dialogue facilities the development of a “no surprises” culture. In such a culture, it’s OK – in fact it’s more than OK, it’s a very positive act – to report a problem with your work, as long as you’re highlighting anticipated or potential problems (e.g., you have completed 20% of your assignment but 40% of the resource budget has been spent so you anticipate that there may be insufficient funds to complete the work).

A no-surprises culture drives the team discussions that lead to creative solutions. But most of all, status reporting lays the foundation for a culture that values disciplined delivery by driving home the fact that you are going to be held accountable for the delivery commitments you make. So what is the value of an organization-wide formal status reporting process? In one word, its value is immense.

The status reporting lays the foundation for a culture that values disciplined delivery by driving home the fact that you are going to be held accountable for the delivery commitments you make.

The status report, more than any other Delivery Engine component, makes the point regarding the dumbing down of organizations. I was working with a senior executive in a large organization. She had just been asked to take over a division that was under-performing. The executive asked if my team could investigate the division to determine what was inhibiting its performance. We conducted a series of interviews, speaking to staff and managers at all levels. What we noticed was that the staff were working almost completely in the moment. The latest phone call or email seemed to determine their ever-shifting priorities. Staff and management were pretty much setting their own priorities, with little (if any) reference to their organization’s strategic objectives. We also noticed that no one, at any level, was producing written status reports and very few managers were taking the time to conduct regular one-on-one or team status meetings. In short, the division was under-performing because no one was being held accountable for anything

I met with the senior executive to share my team’s findings. I explained the Delivery Engine concept and suggested that she start with the immediate implementation of formal, written status reports. It was not without some trepidation that I showed her the status report template (Figure 2). The template is so simple that showing it to this very competent and seasoned executive felt not unlike teaching an old dog some really old tricks. She looked at the report template and went silent and then finally said, “This is good, I can see its usefulness. Do you think I could get a copy of this template?”

So here we have an intelligent, experienced and successful executive who, in the middle of her management career, is being introduced to the concept of formal and universal status reporting for the first time. When she saw the template she immediately recognized its usefulness. It was new to her as a required discipline because she had cut her management teeth in the era following the re-engineering of the early and mid-90s. She had grown up in the era of weak governance.

3. THE WAR ROOM: VISIBLE PROJECT PLANS

A war room is all about making the status, timelines and milestones of every project visible to the members of the organization.

 

The “war room” is another very simple concept. A war room is all about making the status, timelines and milestones of every project visible to the members of the organization. This open display of project status is usually made available in a commonly accessible meeting room. A stylized version of a war room chart is shown in Figure 3. For every project, the chart shows the project name, the leader and the overall status. The project status here comes straight from the most recent project status reports and follows the same traffic light convention (green = project on track, yellow = project has a problem, red = project is in trouble). The war room chart also displays each project’s key activities or steps. A blue dot at the end of an activity means the activity has been successfully completed and a milestone has been reached. An open dot means the activity has been started.

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Figure 3. Sample War Room Chart

In the sample war room chart, several things are apparent. Roger’s project seems to be ahead of schedule, as suggested by the blue dot on activity A2?3. Liz has a problem with her project (it looks like there has been a delay in starting activity A3?3) but she is confident she will be able to recover and complete the project on time and on budget. Finally, Peter’s project appears to be in trouble: activity A5?3 is late. He will likely be requesting an extension to the project’s schedule, a budget change or a scope change.

When the war room chart goes on public display, many projects suddenly seem to fix themselves.

There is little magic in management; it’s closer to a science than an art (the reverse is true for leadership). The war room, however, does have some distinctly magical overtones. The first one is that when the war room chart goes on public display, many projects suddenly seem to fix themselves. It turns out that project leaders don’t like to have their name publically associated with a project that has problems or is failing. The result is that these leaders move heaven and earth to ensure that their project isn’t given a yellow, and especially not a red, status. It has been our finding that the war room process facilitates almost instant commitment to timelines and budgets.

The war room has a second magical property. By openly displaying all of an organization’s projects and their associated activities, the members of the organization start to better understand how their work links to and affects the work of other project teams. They start to appreciate and consider the impact that a failure to deliver on schedule will have on their colleagues’ work and on the organization as a whole. In short, the war room promotes a culture in which people work for the good of the whole. Here’s some more good news: any organization in which people work for the good of the whole is an organization en route to high performance.

The Delivery Engine is nothing if not simple. It is, however, effective at helping to build, across an organization, a sense of accountability for on-time and on-budget delivery. The Delivery Engine keeps an organization focused on its priorities for change. It helps the members of the organization understand their organization’s change strategy and in so doing helps to build commitment to the success of the whole. And last but not least, it helps people to manage the distractions that plague today’s workplace. For all its simplicity, the Delivery Engine grows an organization’s ability to turn its strategy for change into a reality. It does so by teaching workers, at all levels, how to manage and work together.

Success requires managers to both manage and lead, to hold people accountable while giving them the room and the freedom to discover their own way forward.

As important as the Delivery Engine is to the building of a high-performance culture, in the greater scheme of things it is relatively straightforward and a rather small piece of the culture success equation. In building a high-performance culture, the much more significant challenge involves leading in a way that has your people achieving your organization’s objectives not because they are being beaten over the head with management control but rather because the objectives are meaningful to them. As well, they have to be given the space to bring to the table their own inspiration with regards to the path for achieving these objectives. Success requires managers to both manage and lead, to hold people accountable while giving them the room and the freedom to discover their own way forward. Challenging indeed. †

One final note: If 30 years ago someone had suggested that I would be writing a paper on the merits of basic governance processes, such as status reporting, I would have suggested that that someone might want to consider counselling. Oh, how times change.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Ron Wiens has spent the past 30 years helping organizations build high performance cultures. His most recent book, titled ‘Building Organizations that Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound’ is a leader’s guide to culture as competitive advantage. To contact Ron, send him an email at ron@ronwiens.com

† For further insights on the leadership piece associated with the building of a high performance culture, see Building Organizations that Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound.