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Massive ambition, with some niggling doubts. That sums up the results of our latest research encompassing 371 transformation initiatives, 129 project consolidations and 50 productivity drives.
Interestingly, our data suggests that this unlikely ‘ambition-doubt combo' is critical to success.
- Ambition-Doubt Combo: Research involving 371 transformation initiatives, 129 project consolidations, and 50 productivity drives reveals that a combination of massive ambition and niggling doubts is critical to success.
- Balancing Ambition and Doubt: Ambition drives growth and change, while doubt focuses on execution challenges in the face of limited resources and multiple priorities.
- Doubt as a Positive Force: Doubt can be a positive force that keeps leaders grounded and helps refine plans. Overconfidence can lead to flawed strategies.
- Openness to Doubt: Confident leaders welcome doubt and uncertainty as they seek to surface hidden risks, obstacles, and dependencies. It strengthens their plans.
- Managing Risk: Strategies that ignore doubt and risk are incomplete and prone to failure. High-risk endeavors like transformations require embracing doubt rather than silencing it.
- The Danger of Overconfidence: Overconfidence and silencing doubt can jeopardize projects and initiatives, while acknowledging and addressing doubt can be a sign of leadership maturity.
- Wobbly Moments: Recognizing and handling doubt, uncertainty, dependencies, and risks is essential in bridging the gap between strategy and execution in today's complex business environment.
The Winning Combo
The ambition concerns growth, transformation and change. The niggling doubts concern how to make it happen, especially as resources are scarce and leaders are already juggling multiple priorities and projects.
Traditionally, removing or silencing doubt was considered essential to delivering on ambitious strategies. However, we now know that doubt plays a key role in ensuring success. It keeps leaders and their organizations grounded in terms of the challenges of execution and the realities of making things happen.
Doubt as a Positive Force
Leaders are expected to be confident about their projects and plans. There is, however, a danger of over-confidence, especially when plans are complex and ambitious.
The data suggests that senior leaders are up to 20% more positive in their perceptions of the ability to get stuff done within their organizations, than those who are charged with making it happen.
There will always be questions, issues and uncertainties when it comes to delivering on ambitious strategies and plans. If you don't have them, perhaps others do. This doubt can be either :
- A positive force, underpinning success by adjusting plans and engaging and energizing the people involved
- A source of noise and interference, eating away at levels of commitment and enthusiasm
When it comes to delivering on the ambition and to making things happen, the question is not ‘are there niggling doubts?' But rather, ‘can they be talked about and brought out into the open?' Are doubts seen as:
- A valuable input to the planning process
- A means of tackling hidden risks managing risk generally
- A way of maximizing engagement and ownership
- A way for the leader / sponsor to demonstrate and test confidence by listening to concerns.
If they are viewed in this way, then engaging with ‘niggling doubts' is a positive force and something to be embraced, even encouraged. That, however, is not the traditional way of looking at doubt.
People may fear that raising a doubt will give it credence. Executives often fear that they would be the lone voice talking about an issue or concern. But if they share it, they typically find that others are thinking the same way.
Good News Only!
Too many organizations only do good news, they don’t entertain doubt. It is a form of Project Pollyanna. People nod in agreement and stay silent rather than talk about risk or uncertainty because it is not safe to do so. The result is flawed plans, overly optimistic targets, hidden risks and surprise setbacks.
‘Are we being overly ambitious?' asked the newest member of the team. It was a question prompted by genuine concerns about the ability to deliver against target, given results to date and deteriorating market conditions. The question should have spurred a good debate at the leadership table. Instead, the result was a tirade by the CEO followed by stunned silence among the rest of the team.
Confident Leaders Embrace Uncertainty
Paradoxically, those leaders who are most confident in their ambitious plans are most willing to listen to doubt or uncertainty:
- They want to ensure that their plans have the maximum chance of success by surfacing any hidden risks, obstacles or dependencies.
- They don’t see talking about these things as negative, but positive.
- They don’t silence skeptics but see them as playing a key role in grounding plans and making planning more robust.
It is classic Brenee Brown – the demonstration by leaders of courage through vulnerability: ‘You have to put your plans out there and be open to what people say in response'.
Strategies and plans that do not embrace doubt, risk and uncertainty are incomplete and at risk of setback and failure. They are not based on the full information, but rather assumptions that may not have been tested.
Failing to entertain doubt, risk or uncertainty regarding the successful execution of ambitious strategies goes against reality.
The average leader is involved in 7 transformation initiatives, according to our research. That will likely result in 2 successes and 5 failures, based on the much publicized industry-wide failure rate of 70%.1.
The figures don’t lie. Delivering ambitious strategies for performance and transformation is high risk. That risk is magnified if leaders silence doubt and uncertainty.
‘I want you to keep those niggling doubts in the spotlight' said the CEO to the project leader. ‘I don't want to just hear the good news. As long as we are talking about and aware of the obstacles and the risks, we can manage them' he continued.
The Danger of Pollyanna
The absence of doubt is over-confidence or hubris. It is this, rather than doubt, that puts projects and initiatives at risk. The ability to express, and otherwise engage with, doubt is a key indicator of leadership maturity, strategic confidence and even organizational health.
We call them ‘wobbly Moments‘ – times when doubt sets in & obstacles loom large. Every strategic initiative, project & team has them! However, if handled the right way, they can boost the likelihood of success. When is the last time your team had a wobbly moment?
Entertaining doubt, uncertainty, dependencies and risks is a key part of the planning process. In a complex and fast-changing world, it is key to bridging the gap between strategy and execution.
Find out more about the research here.
This insight emerged from strategic conversations with business leaders on the requirements of delivering today's performance & tomorrow's transformation. It is part of our most exciting research yet:
SOLUTIONS & SERVICES: Here are some of the ways that our research & insights are put to work by our clients:
- See ‘Why do most transformations fail? A conversation with Harry Robinson of Mc Kinsey