How would you rate the level of confidence (today) in this initiative?
The answer is provided by ticking on a 10-point scale– where 1 is ‘not confident at all’ and 10 is ‘extremely confident’.
It is called the ‘moment of truth’ because it is a grounding moment – a reality check – when ‘up in the air’ ideas and plans are brought down to earth.
It is easy to get carried away with enthusiasm in discussing an important initiative and what it can or should achieve. But ask this simple question and reality is brought into focus.
Those who may have been enthusiastically talking up the project just a few minutes ago often end up putting confidence at 5 or 6 out of 10. In so doing, their realism can be even more powerful than their enthusiasm in illuminating what needs to happen next.
Executives close to a project often have a 6th sense when it comes to the success of a strategic initiative. It may be an uneasy feeling or a nagging doubt rather than a systematic analysis of project risks, yet it absolutely needs to be listened to.
If the confidence question is asked of the right people – that includes stakeholders (customers, sponsors, etc.) then that provides rich qualitative data regarding the state of an initiative as seen by those who matter.
Now an executive may say: ‘Here is the Gantt Chart and it shows we are well on track for success. Isn’t that what really matters?’ Well, maybe but it is the project’s stakeholders who have the last say. Perhaps they are unaware of the great progress that is being made, or perhaps delivering against the project plan won’t be enough to satisfy them. Either way, the confidence question can really help in managing the stakeholder engagement process.
The primary goal is not to maximize confidence or to dispel any doubts. It is to generate a new awareness and dialogue on the success of the strategic initiative. Ultimately this has the potential to result in a stronger project as well as a more resolute and cohesive project team/community.
What level of confidence does an initiative or project need to ensure its success? Our data points to 75% plus as a high level of confidence with respect to an ambitious strategic initiative. Some might say: Shouldn’t it be 80 or 90%? However, keep in mind:
What our data clearly shows is that this 75% plus level is not the norm for most strategic initiatives. However, the number is only the starting point for a much more interesting conversation.
Interestingly, our data suggests that agile teams tend to be more confident about their Strategic initiatives. A factor here is that they feel more in control – able to adjust and adapt to challenges as they arise. Something similar applies to dedicated project teams that enjoy higher levels of autonomy. Confidence then may have as much to do with what is happening on a project team as it does with the realities of a project itself.
You need confidence but you want to avoid over-confidence. 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.
The gap between strategy and execution is often the gap between confidence and ambition. However, for an organization to be continually pushing forward, ambition must sometimes outstrip confidence. The danger is that if confidence falls too far behind ambition, sustained progress is called into question.
It is easy to maintain high levels of confidence regarding every day (or business as usual) initiatives with modest goals and predictable outcomes. However, when it comes to strategic initiatives aimed at shaping the future of the organization (or even its industry) the level of risk and uncertainty inevitably goes up. Take for example, the implementation of new processes or systems that have not been tried within the organization before and don’t just depend on new technology but also changes in behaviour as well as a range of factors in the external environment.
A high level of confidence could suggest that an initiative is not ambitious or innovative enough. In moving beyond ‘business as usual’, certainty must give way to curiosity and innovation. In complex and fast changing environments people must be able to act in the face of uncertainty.
If an initiative is too ambitious then confidence may be low. But if confidence is high, then maybe the project is not ambitious enough. While strategy is fueled by ambition, the sobering reality is that: Most transformation projects fail. Most change initiatives struggle, and most strategies under-perform. This is what happens when the ambition of the strategy gets out of step with confidence in its execution.
If there are high levels of confidence ask: Could we be oversimplifying things? Before you answer pause to reflect on the factors that make a strategic initiative complex and therefore more difficult to manage.
At what point does confidence fall below a workable level? For example, is there a level below which hopelessness creeps in and a wholesale re-think of the initiative becomes necessary? Well, a 5 out of 10 on the confidence scale might be interpreted as giving the project a 50% chance of success – the equivalent of a coin toss! Anything below that (e.g. a 3 or 4) might be interpreted as suggesting that failure is more likely than success.
Some projects may suffer from a crisis of confidence. Whether justified or not, this could manifest itself in:
Can you identify any of the above in respect of your own strategic initiative?
Where confidence is shaky putting a number on it really helps. For example, where confidence is at 5 the conversation naturally leads to what it would take to get to 6, 7 or even 8. That may involve taking concrete steps such as:
It may also involve more symbolic efforts, such as:
There are almost 20 items listed in the bullet points above. Here is a good place to pause for a moment and to reflect on which of these might be of value to your strategic initiative at this time.
The feeling of making progress is a powerful motivator for a team. When a team feels like it is not moving forward or cannot succeed it is denied this self-propelling force. Therefore, managing the narrative that develops around a project is important. Is it a narrative of confidence and ambition? Or is it a narrative of setbacks, politics, lack of resources and strife? Confidence around a strategic initiative may be as much about mindset as it is about project milestones or anything else.
Boosting the level of confidence is not always the aim. Indeed, there may be times when confidence is too high. For example: Buoyed by past success an organization may feel that it has the ‘Midas Touch’ (where everything turns to gold). Such over-confidence could:
Do you notice any of the above within your organization or team? If yes, your strategic initiative could be vulnerable to over-confidence and groupthink (as examined next).
When it comes to confidence the number matters less than the conversation. It is an opportunity for a ‘strategic conversation’ – the type of conversation that while important doesn’t happen in the normal everyday interactions of a team. If these conversations were happening a lot fewer strategic initiatives would struggle. It is not easy however.
Can your people discuss the performance and potential of a strategic initiative openly and honestly? Will the conversation confront the reality of challenges and obstacles, without leaving people paralyzed and despondent? Well, watch what happens when the confidence question is asked. For example:
Behind so many surprise set-back is a silent whisper of warning. It is when people who put confidence at 3 or 4 chose (often feeling that they had no choice) to stay quiet. A key factor is psychological safety (the ability of people to say what they are thinking without fear of marginalization or retribution). This safety is essential to enable the required level of respectful challenge that enables peak performance.
Nothing demonstrates the confidence of the leader more than their willingness to listen to people talk about their hopes and concerns. Yes, leaders may fear that the conversation around confidence will spiral into negativity, but that is perhaps an outdated view. Today, we know that talking about fears and obstacles can rally a team as powerfully as talking about hopes and aspirations. Moreover, it builds resilience and determination.
Talking about confidence doesn’t change the reality of a project. For example, if the conversation is avoided that does not mean that any of the obstacles or impediments will disappear – indeed the opposite is true. However, it is better that people can express their concerns in the open where they can be dealt with rather, than in whispered hallway conversations.
Talking about confidence levels is positive not negative, regardless of what it reveals. Moreover, it is a key element of effective risk management. For example will the conversation: