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 performance and its future potential?
Ambition is the propelling force behind any Strategic Initiative. It gets initiatives off the ground, enables them to gain momentum and pushes them forward in spite of obstacles and set backs. But getting the right balance between ambition and confidence isn’t easy. Either too much or too little ambition could spell trouble for the success of your Strategic initiative.
When it comes to strategy, ambition is espoused as a leadership virtue. However, there are differing degrees of strategic ambition in terms of what the organization is trying to achieve:
Pause for a moment to consider: What is the level of ambition of your initiative? Where is it to be found on the scale above? Reflect on the questions below in order to explore how ambitious your initiative really is.
Organizations will have initiatives at all points on the scale. At the most ambitious end is the ‘moon shot’ with its ‘game-changing’ or transformative potential. These initiatives tend to steal the headlines, but most initiatives have more modest ambitions (e.g. a 5% improvement in efficiency or a 7% increase in revenues).
Just how much ambition there is determines how much leadership, vision, innovation and, of course, resources your strategic initiative needs.
The level of ambition can reveal much about an initiative and the strategy or vision that it aims to realize. That includes, the time horizon, the potential business impact, the level of risk or uncertainty involved and the type of leadership and innovation required. It also illuminates whether the initiative is business as usual or business unusual.
Just how ambitious an initiative is depends on whether the initiative falls into the category ‘business as usual’ or ‘business unusual’:
Usual Ambition – The usual level of ambition would be last year plus 3%, 5% or even 10%. Such ‘business as usual’ initiatives aim to improve the everyday running of the business by sustaining and enhancing its core – that is its existing processes, products, markets and technologies. They build on the past extending its life into the short and medium term.
Unusual Ambition – Major or Massive gains tend to derive from doing something very new and very different. This involves working back from a future vision of success, seeking to transform the business through new products, technologies, business models, etc. ‘Business Unusual’ levels of ambition might be 35% of revenue will come from new products and technologies within 3-5 years. The goal might even be 10x in the case of a moon-shot. In either case, Business Unusual typically takes a longer term view – something that can be difficult for busy managers when they are under pressure to meet the quarterly target.
Some will argue that all Strategic projects or initiatives are by definition business unusual. In reality, however a strategic initiative is rarely completely ‘business as usual’ or ‘business unusual’, but can be found somewhere on the scale between the two. It may combine some elements of the past with some elements of the future (e.g. extension to an existing product range or expansion into a new but adjacent market segment).
The closer an initiative is to ‘business unusual’ the more it is likely to stretch and challenge the organization. The greater the level of risk and uncertainty that will be involved. Also, the more sophisticated its execution must be. A project that has level 7-10 ambition, needs to be managed very differently than one that has ambition at a level of 1-5 – that is if the ambition is to be realized.
In looking to the future, leaders are advised to dream big – even to make their goals ‘big, hairy and audacious’1. There is growing use of terms such as: ‘Moon-shot’, ‘Blue Ocean’2, the ‘Next Bounce of the Ball’3 and ‘Inflection Point’4. Such terms are clear evidence that this is not ‘Business As Usual’, but rather something quite different.
Business Unusual is born of high levels of ambition – ambition to shape the future of the organization and even its industry. But it also entails unusually highly levels of risk. These are high stakes bets and an organization can only place a small number of them at any time. Moreover, it cannot run them the same as other more routine (business as usual) project.
The greater the ambition the more risk, uncertainty and disruption it may bring.
While strategy is fuelled 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.
It is easy to be confident of a strategy that has only modest ambitions – that will not challenge or stretch the organization and its people. But if confidence is high, then maybe the project is not ambitious enough. In this way, confidence and ambition are continuously playing ‘tag’ with one chasing after the other.
All too often there is a gap between strategy and execution – this is the gap between confidence and ambition. It is the ability to translate strategic ambition into a set of carefully prioritized and sequenced strategic initiatives that will be executed with rigour, agility and leadership.
It could be argued that nothing great was ever achieved without ambition. However, vaulted ambition can be dangerous and must be guarded against. For example, psychologists tell us that there is an innate tendency to over-estimate how much can be achieved and how quickly. This is called the planning fallacy, and it happens when we are closely involved in any strategic initiative5.
Here are 14 proven techniques to keep ambition in check:
Pause for a moment to reflect on the list above. Which of these techniques can you employ to ensure the right level of ambition for your initiative?
Ambition means the desire for more, better, faster and best. It is not being content with the past but looking to shape the future of the organization and perhaps even its industry. There are different shades of ambition from ‘contribution’ (making a difference) to competition (winning over a competitor / challenge).
Cover art by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay