There can be a lot of cynicism regarding strategic initiatives and critical projects. Once we saw this as something negative… preferring to engage with those who dreamed big and saw few obstacles. How our views have changed! Today, we value the corporate cynic, seeing cynicism as a potentially powerful input to the process of de risking strategic initiatives.
“Scratch the surface of most cynics and you find a frustrated idealist — someone who made the mistake of converting his ideals into expectations.”
― Peter Senge1
Confidence in execution often lags behind the ambition of strategy – that is a fact of corporate life. Most executives have learned to curb their enthusiasm. They have participated on too many committees, attended too many meetings or workshops and seen too many projects and initiatives “go quietly into the night.” With a history of disappointed expectations, they greet news of the latest initiative with a degree of caution, even cynicism.
…the player who looks the least engaged may be the most committed member of the group. A cynic, after all, is a passionate person who does not want to be disappointed again.
Rosamund Stone Zander & Benjamin Zander2.
This cynicism can be a healthy thing – it puts those sponsoring and running initiatives on the spot – requiring them to:
There are 3 levels of confidence for any strategic initiative or critical project:
· Level 1 – the Gloss – the marketing wrap of the project, the sound-bites and the PR.
· Level 2 – the Mechanics – the nuts and bolts of the project, including the scope, budget, workplan, timeline and so on.
· Level 3 – the Chassis / foundation – a solid business foundation – including such fundamentals as Business Need, Business Impact, and so on.
Cynics can be found at any of these levels. To be more precise justifiable concerns about any initiative can exist at any of these levels. To build confidence from an initiative you need to build it from the bottom up (level 1 – ‘the chassis’), not from the top down (level 3 – ‘the gloss’). Let’s explore each of these levels.
This is the marketing wrap of the project, the sound-bites and the PR.
Although sometimes derogatorily referred to as ‘hype’ it can have an important role to play in communicating to the outside world regarding the project and its merits or its vision.
It may include a logo or identity for the project (incl. slide deck/brochure and tag line). Also launch event, project announcement and updates.
While ‘hyping-up’ a project may be required to ensure funding and support, it can be greeted with cynicism or result in a mismatch of expectations. A project needs to maintain a certain profile, however ‘keeping it real’ is important.
Highlighted by the CEO as tangible evidence of the organization’s brave first steps in a new direction, the strategic initiative had its own stylized logo and slick slide template. This packaging would be important in presenting the right image to stakeholders anxiously awaiting progress.
A minority of stakeholders were sceptical, however. Weary of press releases, fancy slides and marketing speak, they feared that when the gloss was stripped from such high-profile initiatives there was often little underneath. With little in terms of tangible details or specifics such initiatives ‘talked the walk but did not walk the talk’.
This is the nuts and bolts of the project, including the scope, budget, workplan, timeline and so on. Typically, this is visible in the form of a project plan and Gantt Chart. Also, in adherence to ‘the basics’ of project management such as regular & effective reviews. Here project managers are at their happiest – they can apply a formulaic approach using tried and tested methods.
While the popularity of project management may be at an all-time low, the application of basic project rigor is more important than ever. However, Project Management 3.0 requires that rigor is balanced with agility.
This is the solid business foundation of a project or initiative. It includes such fundamentals as Business Need, Business Impact, Business Urgency and so on.
Caught up in the day-to-day busyness of a project, it is easy to lose sight of the fundamental ‘why’ of the project (this is called Project Myopia).
Even the most meticulously planned project may have a lack of clarity or alignment in respect of some of the business fundamentals.
The chassis is key to bridging the gap between strategy and execution – between the project and the C-suite. In this way the level of clarity and alignment in respect of the 9 business fundamentals shown around the chassis is a proxy for the gap between strategy and execution.
A group of project leaders in a client organization recently came together to assess the chassis across a set of critical projects. Specifically, to assess the level of clarity and alignment in respect of the initiative’s business fundamentals of 6 high profile projects. The combined average rating for all the projects across the 9 business fundamentals was a disappointing 42%.
The chassis plays a vital role in ensuring that the rubber meets the road and strategy gets executed. So, if the clarity and alignment (in respect of the business fundamentals of a project) are rated at 42% the gap between strategy and execution could be as much as 58%.
It was telling that people struggled to communicate either the business need, business impact or the business urgency of the initiative. Moreover, the initiative did not have a clear price tag with the budget estimate including no people related costs.
As in the example above the lack of clarity and alignment on the chassis indicated that there were strategic conversations that needed to happen. Conversations with stakeholders around the fundamental ‘why?’ of the project, in particular business need and expected business impact. Without this, the initiative might not deliver against the needs of the business or the expectations of stakeholders.
Working the chassis requires strategic conversations that:
• Engage the C-suite
• Link strategy to execution
• Ensure alignment
• Enable change.
The lack of executive sponsorship or support emerges as a key factor impeding project success, so talking the language of the C-suite (such as that around the chassis) is essential.
The strategic conversation is more than just a conversation or even an important conversation. Rather it is an approach that addresses the shortcoming of traditional top-down approach to strategy and the challenges in respect of implementation. It is essential not just to strategy, but to change and engagement.
For those executives that want to be seen as business enablers, rather than project managers the business fundamentals of a project are key. For traditional project managers working on then business fundamentals can be a stretch.
· Engaging in strategic conversations at the c-suite level requires greater confidence and skill. It is not necessarily about having all the answers, but asking the right questions.
· The spread sheet or project management tool is only a small part of what is required here. Engaging with complexity and uncertainty is necessary.
· As the saying goes: ‘if it is easy, then it isn’t strategy’ and bridging the gap between strategy and execution certainly presents challenges.
· Total clarity and alignment in respect of all the business fundamentals of a complex and ambitious project may not be possible. Indeed, that may not even be desirable – especially if it stems from a false consensus or over-confidence.
You need to embrace cynicism and build confidence on all 3 levels – gloss, mechanics and chassis.
The consequences of neglecting Level 3 – the messaging or PR for a project – are small relative to those of neglecting level 1 – the business foundations of the project. However, the deeper the level the more fundamental the challenges are likely to be.
The tool for fixing level 1 is pr and marketing, the tool for fixing level 2 is the project plan (with added agility) and for fixing level 3 is the strategic conversation.