Your strategic initiatives must deliver on the organization’s strategy – they are the vehicle for performance, growth, innovation and perhaps even transformation. But are they capable of delivering what is required? Sometimes it can be hard to tell.
Strategic initiatives often look good on the outside, leading to a sense of confidence and optimism. However, to understand the prospects of success, we have to look beyond the ‘paintwork’ so to speak– that is, beyond the hype of the initiative – its lofty goals and aspirations.
We need to look at what is underneath – the chassis – to see if the initiative has a solid foundation for success.
To reframe the conversation regarding strategy and execution, we alternate the terms ‘strategic initiative’ and ‘strategic vehicle’. These are the means of getting the business from A to B (i.e. from the present reality to a desired future). They are also an instrument of strategy or the machinery of execution.
We talk about the business foundation of a strategic initiative as being its chassis. As shown in the diagram below, it has 9 elements, including factors such as business needs, business impact, business urgency and so on.
The chassis is the main support structure bearing all the stresses on a vehicle. It is key to the vehicle’s: stability, handling, alignment, safety and overall performance. Driving with chassis problems is noisy, uncomfortable, costly and even dangerous.1
It might be assumed that every strategic initiative that gets off the ground must have a solid chassis or business foundation. Yet, for many initiatives, there is some element of ambiguity or misalignment around one or more of these 9 factors. This happens regardless of the detail of the strategy, the project management methodology used or even the experience and skill of the managers involved.
Rather than it being an omission, ambiguity around some business fundamentals may actually play a role in getting an initiative off the ground. However, chassis problems don’t fix themselves and can be the most serious of all unseen hazards facing a project to initiative.
In building a vehicle the place to start is the chassis. The chassis needs to be done before all the other parts are added (e.g. engine or electronics). That may not be so easy when it comes to addressing the business fundamentals of a strategic initiative.
A strategic initiative might never get going if all the issues around the chassis had to be tied down before it started:
They say ‘if it is easy, then it ain’t strategy’ and this particularly applies to strategic initiatives where confidence in execution often lags behind the ambition of strategy. Ensuring your strategic initiative has a solid business foundation, while vital, is no easy matter.
Managers might look at the 9 headings and say ‘we need to get agreement on these factors’. Yet, for a complex and ambitious initiative that may not be the primary objective. If all these factors are ‘green’ (i.e. enjoy a high level of confidence or certainty) then there could be a danger of overconfidence or a false consensus.
It is natural for there to be question marks over many of these areas. Perhaps the question is not: ‘Are these factors clear?’ but ‘Has there been an effective dialog on them?’ Strategic Conversations are the primary engineering tool required by managers in building the chassis or solid foundation for a project.
People working on projects are talking all the time. However, strategic conversations are the type of conversations that, while important, tend not to happen in the everyday busyness of a project or initiative. When any aspect of the chassis is marked red or amber then that is a tell-tale sign that a conversation needs to be had.
Q: Which aspects of the chassis require a strategic conversation?
While clarity is the goal, it is essential that the process engages with uncertainty, recognizing that assumptions and scenarios are key to the planning process and that total certainty in a complex fast-changing environment may not be possible or even desirable. However, it is important to point out that clarity is not certainty. While the latter may not always be possible, the former should be2. The organization must act in spite of uncertainty.
Everything is built on or around the chassis – so, issues anywhere around the vehicle could be traced back to it. If the vehicle’s handling or reliability is in question, if the tires are wearing out or the vehicle is difficult to control, then tinkering with alignment or fixing the steering wheel may not be enough. There may be more fundamental structural problems, such as:
Adjusting, updating or replacing the chassis is one of the most fundamental ways to impact on the performance of a strategic vehicle (or any other kind of vehicle for that matter).
Above all, the chassis is key to alignment. If there is a lack of alignment in respect of any of the 9 factors, continuous intervention will likely be required to compensate for it.
Running a strategic vehicle with chassis problems can be draining and frustrating. If this happens, you will likely find yourself trying to compensate for the structural inadequacies of the vehicle. For example, you must pull the steering wheel right to compensate for the vehicle’s tendency to veer left or change the tires repeatedly to compensate for excessive wear.
These interventions distract from the real work that needs to be done and demand extra energy and resources. However, no matter how heroic these efforts are, they may not be enough to compensate for the underlying problem(s). In the long term, it is unlikely that a great driver or team can compensate for a chassis problem.
Q: Are there times when you must compensate for more fundamental structural issues with your initiative?
A downward spiral begins when the driver does not have a good car (which he shares responsibility for)
and tries to drive harder, which leads to mistakes & ultimately to disaster.
Race to Win – Derek Daly & Mario Andretti
The body work is the last thing to go on to the vehicle – before that happens the key elements of the car – the engine – wheels – exhaust – electronics need to be fixed to the chassis. This has interesting parallels for strategic initiatives that are surrounded by a lot of hype and expectation – where the façade often clouds reality.
Q: Are all the component parts of your initiative integrated around a shared chassis?
For those executives who are driven by urgency, the temptation is to get the vehicle running and worry about structural adjustments later. However, it is difficult if not impossible to correct for problems with the chassis mid-race. So, much of the work on the chassis needs to be done up front. However, the chassis may need to be continually adjusted as track conditions change.
Just as the chassis for a big truck won’t fit on an agile and speedy racer, the chassis of an initiative exploring a new market opportunity or technology is going to be different to the chassis for an initiative to deliver short term efficiencies from the core business. The chassis for the former ‘business unusual’ initiative, is more complex than the chassis for the latter ‘business unusual’ initiative.
Q: Has enough up-front work been done on the chassis for your initiative?
The chassis needs to be adjusted for each race, with suspension settings, height and so on reflecting the demands of the track. Tracks that are more complex – that have more high-speed corners and therefore require agility as well as speed – put incredible stress and strain on the vehicle. Changing business needs or priorities emerges as the number one reason for failed projects – that means checking and adjusting the chassis in an ongoing requirement.
Q: Is the chassis of your initiative suited to the race you are in?
‘A race car is actually a huge assembly of compromises travelling in formation. Ideally,
all of those compromises are consistent with the same purpose.
Neil Roberts, Think Fast – The Racer’s Guide to Winning
Let’s sum up by looking for parallels in the performance obsessed arena of F1, where project management and innovation are essential to delivering new cars every race season.
In racing you know you have made it to the top when you earn the title ‘Chassis Director’ or ‘Director of Chassis Engineering’. This is an all-powerful role, as the tires, the engine, the electronics must all be attached to the chassis. For example, how and where the engine is mounted on the chassis is critical to so many aspects of the vehicle’s performance. The best engine in the world, mounted in a suboptimal manner on the chassis, will not enable the driver to win. So, who is the ‘Chassis Director’ for your strategic initiative? The chassis is the integrating framework for the whole vehicle, as such it requires cross-functional collaboration.
The chassis is an important part of any vehicle, but it plays a crucial role in F1™ where drivers and their machines push the limits (of gravity, engineering and even physical endurance) by speeding around impossibly twisted racetracks. For strategic initiatives that require more than straight line acceleration, this is also true.
If a race machine is under-performing, attention quickly turns to the chassis3. That is because it is the basis for everything else around the vehicle. Moreover, adjustments around the chassis are key to setting the vehicle up for success based on the requirements of each racetrack.
So important is the chassis to performance that Ferrari and others have teams of engineers and designers dedicated to it.
The chassis in F1™ is made from compounds that have titanium strength but being lightweight they don’t slow the vehicle or make it more difficult to manoeuvre. This has interesting parallels in respect of strategic initiatives where robust planning often entails bureaucratic practices that represent a drag on speed and agility.
There is another interesting parallel with racing – you need to take a chassis out on to the road to know how it performs. It is only when the ‘rubber meets the road’ and the strategy is executed that it becomes clear which assumptions and scenarios will actually play out.
‘If the car is set up right, fast lap times just happen’.
Race to Win – Derek Daly & Mario Andretti