My imaginary cash hoard

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen a leadership team with a shiny new strategy that’s never gotten off the whiteboard into real life, I could retire right now. They go through the pain of looking at their organization and its place in the world. They hash out the messy choices any organization has to make to move from decent to awesome. They endure the pain and anguish of listening to everyone in the team – yes, even that guy – and getting the best thinking from the group.

And there it is. A strategy, stuck on the whiteboard, still-born. It’s enough to make a strategy facilitator plead.

As it turns out, I’m not above begging. With strategy season just around the corner, I’m on my knees in front of you, imploring you to do these two simple things before you get started. Why? Because if you fail to do them, I can just about promise that your strategy will never move from being pretty words on flip-charts to changing your company and the world. And we all need a little company-changing, world-changing action these days.

Job 1: Expand the people pool – If you’re like most organizations, you have a few go-to people who get stuff done. They’re capable, ambitious, smart, and often collaborative. They’re also probably just about maxed out because you always give them the ball on important initiatives. And they usually have significant day jobs.

They probably won’t scream too loudly when they’re maxed out, which is another reason you secretly love them. But there’s only so much they can do and at some point, probably pretty soon if not yet, you’ll find the breaking point. With your luck, it will happen right when you’ve asked them to lead one of the strategic initiatives that will come out of your strategy process.

Most leaders have a hunch that their organizations run this way. They just don’t have any solutions – at least none that will make a difference in the next couple of years. What many fail to see is that their strategy process could be part of solving the problem because there are probably people in the shadows of your organization waiting to be discovered even if they themselves don’t even know it.

Your goal should be to at least double the number of people who you could consider for roles leading strategic initiatives.  Please read that sentence again. (And then take a deep breath.)

Here’s what you can do:

  • Do an inventory of your organization. List all of the people in formal leadership roles from the most junior to those on your senior team.
    • Identify the people you currently consider for leadership roles in strategic projects. This is the number you want to double.
  • Note the Usual Suspects, those who are regularly tapped to work on important organizational challenges. Be explicit about the skills and behaviors/attitudes displayed by these people that make them so effective in your organization, that make you proud of them as representatives of the best of your firm. 
  • Ask your team who they believe has potential to be a rising star in the organization. Note where they demonstrate the skills and behaviors/attitudes of your Usual Suspects – and where you’re not sure.
  • Ask the Usual Suspects who they see as high potential leaders. High capacity people have a nose for others like them, especially because high capacity people are always trying to get others engaged in their work too. Note the additional leaders flagged by your Usual Suspects.
  • Count the number of known and potential initiative leaders. If you’ve at least doubled the count, you’re ready to move on. If not, keep searching. And while you’re at it, grab some time with the people recruiting new folks into your company. Make sure they’re looking for the attributes you’re struggling to find in addition to the technical specs for these roles.

Job 2: Carve out the time for execution of the new initiatives – Unless your organization is very unusual, your people are already busy. True, some are busy doing silly stuff. But most are doing good stuff. The bad news is that your strategy process is going to create more to do. I’ve never seen a strategy that didn’t have a variety of time-consuming initiatives flow from it.

Unless you move now – before you start the strategy process – to create margin, you will inevitably come up with wonderful initiatives but be frustrated because you have no time, energy, or money to address them. This is where many strategy processes stall.

So start now. I promise this will be painful. I also promise it’s worth it. In fact, without it I believe you shouldn’t waste your time working on strategy. Here’s how to get going:

  • Do a ruthless inventory of your organization’s current initiatives. If you have a Project Management Organization, they’ll be able to tell you what’s out there formally – and maybe what’s hiding in the weeds or being done in a skunkworks.
  • Take a cold, hard look at the work being done. Even before you lift a white board marker in the act of strategy, I’ll bet you can identify 10-20% of current initiatives that are either no longer relevant or have been attempted without any clear success. Cut them. Someone will scream. But mostly, people will heave a sigh of relief. Don’t punish people for perceived failures. Instead learn what you can and celebrate the act of pruning as a declaration of freedom.
  • Look at the balance of your initiatives. If most or all of them are oriented toward making today’s business a little bit better vs. creating something truly new for tomorrow, stack rank those “make today’s business better” projects and place the bottom 10-20% of work on hold.
  • Seek the pinch points in your organization. What scarce resources (usually people) are being over-utilized today? If you can’t prune work coming through that resource, what can you do – right now – to find options for supplementing that resource?

The point of all of this is to be sure you actually have the people and time available to you when you conceive of your strategic initiatives. This avoids the deflating loss of momentum that so often strikes leadership teams when they try to move forward on strategic initiatives. I hate that experience. And that’s why I’m begging you to do these things now.

Be Bright