Q: How long will it take to fix alignment? A: 6.15 hours!
How to Bring Your Ambitious Strategy to Life? The answer is Super Projects
Q: How long will it take to fix alignment? A: 6.15 hours!
How to Bring Your Ambitious Strategy to Life? The answer is Super Projects
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Strategic Silence: The Dangers of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ for Strategic Initiatives

Talking About Priorities

Given their importance, you would imagine that leaders would continually be talking about their strategic priorities and initiatives.

Specifically, you would expect senior executives to regularly ask about priorities and initiatives, including progress, setbacks, lessons learned, risks, obstacles, dependencies, and so on.

You would also expect those driving the projects or initiatives to seek out every opportunity to tell their leaders what is happening. Sadly, this isn’t necessarily true.

A Telling Indicator of Importance

On paper, the strategy may say that something is a priority. But, just how much time, attention or conversation something is given is another, perhaps even more real, indicator of just how important something is.

Moreover, when leaders fail to ask about a strategic initiative or make time on the agenda for it, it leaves people asking, ‘Do they care?' This can undermine the commitment and engagement level of those charged with making it happen. 

Moreover, if leaders don't ask or talk about a project or priority, it sends a signal to all those watching. This is critical when a project requires effective cross-functional collaboration, where people are likely to ask, ‘Do I really need to do this?’. A lack of demonstrable commitment by senior leadership may signal to others that they don't need to be committed either.

Strategic Project Conversations

There is much less talk about priorities and projects than expected. This is especially true regarding strategic conversations at the C suite (CEO, CFO, etc.).

There may be a lot of ongoing communication about a project or priority—emails, IMs, standard reports and so on. However, these tend to be focused on tactical and operational issues. 

What is missing is the opportunity for leaders to stand back and have a strategic conversation. Instead, there is strategic silence.

Caught up in the busyness of the day-to-day, leaders don’t have an opportunity to stand back and reflect on what has been achieved, how priorities may have changed, or whether the plan and its execution require adjustment.

Without regular senior-level project conversations, assumptions will likely go untested, expectations will go unmanaged, and risks will remain hidden.

Access to C-suite Wisdom

Too many priorities and initiatives are being denied access to one of the organization's most significant resources: the C-suite's knowledge, wisdom and foresight.

The insight and leverage the C-suite can bring to a critical project or initiative are tremendous. But, if getting senior leadership attention becomes another challenge to be tackled by project leaders, surprise setbacks will often arise. By the time leaders attend to an issue, it may be too late or too costly to respond.

For instance, a multinational corporation faced significant losses due to a delayed product launch, primarily attributed to a lack of communication between project teams and top management. Although the warning signals appeared early on, the leadership team failed to notice them and redirect the strategy or resources accordingly.

By contrast, a tech startup’s culture of open dialogue enabled accelerated product development and market success, with the strategy being dynamically adjusted in response to initial setbacks and resources being redirected as needed.

As the above client stories suggest, most serious project setbacks happen when senior leadership is distracted elsewhere. Most project leaders have only limited power to change strategy or shift resources. They must wait for senior leadership to get involved. By the time senior leadership is paying attention, the problem is often more complex and more costly to solve.

Here is a vivid image of what happens when senior leaders do not discuss their key priorities and initiatives.

Stakeholders and the project team can find themselves pulling in different directions, with a lack of clarity and alignment regarding what needs to be done.

Why not get this analysis for your strategic priority? 

Source: Pitstop Analytics

The Division of Responsibilities

There is a little understood division of responsibility regarding executing strategy priorities and initiatives. This is rooted in an age-old paradigm where leaders devised strategy and others were charged with its implementation. However, success requires dual responsibility.

Strategy and execution must go hand in hand. Those who created the strategy must keep an eye on and guide execution. They have to know what is happening regarding critical projects and initiatives.

Those who are caught up in the running of the project—attending to the tasks on the project plan, generating project documentation and navigating internal bureaucracy—need strategic oversight and guidance. ‘Caught up in the weeds', they need senior leaders (i.e., the CEO and others) to ask the more substantial strategic questions. For example:

  • Will the initiative deliver as promised?  Will it deliver on the strategy/vision?
  • How well does the initiative reflect changing business needs and priorities?
  • Is the level of organizational resources and support appropriate?
  • Are the lessons of past initiatives being applied?
  • How is the initiative leveraging synergies with other initiatives and between departments and teams?
  • Is there sufficient risk management, as well as oversight and governance? 

These are questions that the typical project review or perfunctory project status report won’t answer. They are questions that will go unanswered unless the C-level is involved.

Talking About Critical Initiatives

You might be thinking: If people are not discussing a priority or initiative, it mustn't be that important. Well, surprisingly, that isn’t necessarily true. Even the most critical programs or initiatives are getting little talk time.

Even projects and initiatives that are critical to success – upon which the strategy depends – can go months without being discussed at the C-suite. When there is a discussion, it may only deal with good news. The slides on risks and obstacles may well be hidden.

What is our solution to
‘Don't Ask- Don't Tell'?

We provide the tools to enable leaders to systematically gather the perspectives of all key stakeholders (including the C-suite) without getting busy people into a room or even booking a slot in their diaries.

It takes just 15 minutes online per stakeholder. That means it could save days of conversations and meetings. 

It is a test of clarity, commitment and alignment among key stakeholders. 

It highlights any gaps between the strategy and project plan between the project team and its key stakeholders.

The conversation is based on data, removing issues of personalities and politics from the debate. 

Because it's online and confidential, people can say what they're thinking.

Cuts to the chase, speedily Illuminates issues that need attention, highlighting where greater clarity or alignment is required.

As a systematic analysis, it prevents oversimplification of the issues, leaders must address the key issues in all their complexity.

Illuminates hidden key success factors and risks in a way that prevents blind spots and bias. 

Shapes the agenda. Enables project leaders to bring critical issues out into the open in a safe manner, enabling respectful challenge where required.

Then, when you need to bring your stakeholders together, the conversation can be as focused and effective as possible.

Advice for Project Leaders

Many project leaders are tempted to wait until the timing is right—for example, until there is something good to report.

The advice for project leaders is as follows:

  1. Don't wait to be asked. Don’t wait until you have to tell your leaders about a problem or until you need something (e.g. more resources).
  2. Tell people continuously about your project or initiative—not just in the form of a ‘positive spin', either. 
  3. Schedule regular, ahead-of-time opportunities to talk to senior leaders about your project or initiative. Please don't leave it to chance.
  4. Ensure authentic and honest communication, share the challenges and the setbacks too
  5. When you talk about your project, go beyond the perfunctory project review and reporting—talk about what matters to senior leaders.
  6. Avoid project myopia, where you focus on the project ahead of business needs and priorities and how the project is connected to business performance and success.
  7. Remember, you may be talking to people about your project, but that does not mean you have those strategic conversations critical to success.

Pause for a moment to consider: Which of the above tips could you apply within your organization?

Getting to the Root of the Problem

You may be thinking, what is wrong with us as an organization, or a leadership team, that we are not talking about our strategic initiatives? Well, first know that you are not alone! This is a problem that afflicts many organizations, and it can be helpful to understand the root causes. 

Here are some of the reasons why people are not talking about projects at the senior leadership level. Look for the ones that may be present within your organization:

  1. There is a proliferation of projects and priorities competing for scarce senior leadership time and attention. Indeed, ‘seven’ is a crucial reason for the ‘don’t ask – don’t tell’ in respect of strategic priorities. In other words, leaders have, on average, seven major initiatives going on at the same time. The argument goes: If all of these were to be discussed, then there wouldn’t be much time for anything else! 
  2. The level of involvement in an initiative can be intensive at the pre-planning stage.  When that phase is over and an initiative is up and running, leaders may be thinking, ‘We have spent too much time talking about this initiative already; it is time for action’. Besides, leaders may have moved on to the next big thing.
  3. Many senior leaders have a peculiarly hands-off approach to projects. Once the strategy is devised, they are happy to delegate execution to others. There is often an assumption that those involved will make it happen. After all, they are highly experienced and capable executives, and it is their job! Relatedly, they assume that if people need something, they will come and ask for it. However, this is a dangerous assumption,
  4. Time pressure. Leaders are under a lot of pressure – juggling multiple priorities and projects. They regularly complain that they don’t have time to think, much less think strategically. Caught up in the busyness of the day-to-day, what is urgent, often distracts from what is important.
  5. Ineffective senior-level meetings where the agenda is packed full and frequently runs over time. Much of the conversation centres on operational or day-to-day issues rather than long-term projects and priorities.
  6. Surely, it is good to talk!? Well, not always. It may result in questions being asked – it could unravel what was previously agreed. Given the laborious process involved in getting a project approved and off-the-ground, revisiting what has been put in the plan could be dangerous. Many project leaders have learned that any conversation at the senior leadership level can result in an unexpected curveball, which is a risk that they have to be willing to accept.
  7. Some organizations only do good news‘ regarding projects and initiatives. It may be unsafe for people to talk about setbacks, obstacles or risks. Such talk may be considered harmful, displaying a lack of commitment or engagement.
  8. Difficult conversations are easy to put off. There are conversations that are not being had (CNBH) about many strategic initiatives. Important conversations as to resources, commitments and changes required at a cross-functional level. Moreover, with many projects competing for scarce time, resources, and attention, there are difficult choices, tradeoffs and compromises to be made. The natural way is to put off making these choices.
  9. When senior leaders are not talking about critical projects and initiatives, this can indicate a lack of alignment. Yet, leaders commonly assume there must be alignment – what we call the illusion of alignment. That is a particular risk when an initiative is being driven by one department or function. Whether an initiative is being driven by IT or HR, it must be considered critical to business success, if it is to gain cross-functional backing.
  10. Remote working can result in a more siloed approach and fewer effective strategic conversations between those working on projects and those leading the organization.

Which of the following factors could be at play within your organization?

Do you want to accelerate the strategic conversation regarding your critical project or initiative? If yes, talk to us.

SOLUTIONS & SERVICES: Here are some of the ways that our research & insights are put to work by our clients:

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