Of all the data to be gathered in assessing strategic initiatives, two pieces most illuminate the performance and potential of a strategic initiative or critical project.
Despite the complexity of running strategic initiatives or critical projects and the many factors involved, two pieces of data stand out:
Confidence and Ambition are not the usual metrics you might expect (e.g. financial or productivity KPis). They won’t be found in most project tracking tools or spreadsheets either. Yet, they are surprisingly powerful.
Let’s explore these unconventional, yet revealing metrics in more detail.
Two Tell-tale Metrics
Strategic ambition is what we hope will happen as set out in the strategy and its vision or goals. By contrast, project confidence is what we expect to happen. While ambition is about strategy, confidence is about execution. It is also about results and reality.
A measure of either confidence or ambition in respect of a strategic initiative or critical project would be interesting of itself. But combine the two (confidence and ambition) and you get a much deeper insight to the performance and potential of any strategic initiative.
Is your organization, business unit or department on course to realize its ambitions? Will the initiatives that you are driving forward close the gap between its present reality and its future vision – between its performance today and its potential tomorrow? These are questions central to the issue of strategic ambition.
Ambition propels strategic initiatives forward but how much ambition has your project got? Could it have too little or even too much?
Just how much ambition there is determines how much leadership, vision, innovation and, of course, resources your strategic initiative needs. It also determines the level of risk and uncertainty. In particular, we talk of ‘usual’ and ‘unusual’ levels of ambition, based on the aims of your strategic initiative.
- The usual level of ambition would be last year plus 3%, 5% or even 10%.
- ‘Business Unusual’ levels of ambition might be 35% of revenue will come from new products and technologies within 3-5 years.
How would you rate the level of confidence (today) in your initiative? Asking this question can provide a real insight to the performance of an initiative, as well as the potential of those people running it.
Boosting the level of confidence is not always the aim. Indeed, there may be times when confidence is too high. People have to believe that their initiatives can succeed, if they are to be motivated and effective in their work. However, over-confidence can leave people vulnerable and unprepared in the face of unexpected challenges or set-backs.
Be warned: There are many reasons why we are prone to over-confidence with respect to strategic initiatives and critical projects (e.g. Groupthink and the Planning Fallacy).
Here is how one of our experienced consulting partners explained the insight provided by confidence and ambition:
‘If I only had 5 minutes with the leader of a critical project or initiative, I would ask only two questions. The first would be about the level of ambition driving the initiative and the second would be the level of confidence in its success. The answers would tell me an awful lot – not just in terms of the number (where on a scale from 1 to 10 the person puts the project) but the explanation given, the words used, the body language and so on.
Next, I would go on to ask the same two questions of others who are involved in the project – a sponsor, a key stakeholder, some project team members and so on. After just a few people I would be able to make some confident predictions regarding the present trajectory of the project and likely outcome that will result’.
Balancing the Two
The interplay of confidence and ambition is central in translating strategy to success. Yet, getting the balance right isn’t easy.
When it comes to strategy, ambition is espoused as a leadership virtue. Moreover, for an organization to be continually pushing forward ambition must sometimes outstrip confidence. If, however, confidence falls too far behind ambition the sustained progress of an initiative comes into question.
The gap between confidence and ambition can be a challenge. But the gap between confidence and reality can be even more dangerous. You need confidence but you want to avoid overconfidence.
While strategy is fueled by ambition, the sobering reality is that: Too many transformation projects fail. Too many change initiatives struggle, and too many strategies under-perform. This is what happens when the ambition of the strategy gets out of step with confidence in its execution.
Mapping Your Initiative
Take a moment to get familiar with the grid below. The vertical axis is labelled Ambition with the scale being low, moderate or high. The lowest row delivers only marginal gains while the top is highly ambitious – it is potentially transformational or might be called a ‘moon-shot’.
The horizontal axis is labelled ‘Confidence’ and is also divided into 3 columns – the first being low, next being moderate and the last being high.
- High level of confidence means we expect to succeed – confidence is 75% plus.
- A moderate level of confidence means it is more likely to happen than not, with confidence in the region of 60-70%.
- Low level of confidence means we don’t really believe that the initiative will succeed. At best we would give it a 50:50 chance of success.
A strategic initiative or critical project that is highly ambitious would be found in the top row of the grid. If confidence in that initiative is moderate, then the project would be in the middle column of the grid. The closest number would be 5, so you write down or circle the number 5.
With this in mind, which number do you feel best represents your strategic initiative at this time?
The grid below shows how one leader positioned 3 key strategic initiatives on the grid and the implications:
- Initiative 1 is high confidence and high ambition, raising the issue of possible over-confidence.
- Initiative 2 is low ambition and low confidence resulting in questions about whether it should continue.
- Initiative 3: Confidence lags ambition, perhaps the initiative is overly ambitious or more robust project management (e.g. update project plan and risks) is required.