Project Management

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This is a blog about Strategy Execution, about implementing change and driving ROI to the bottom line. It is intended for: Leaders and for Program, Project and Change Management practitioners trying to manage the weather systems of change raining inside the organization.

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Recent Posts

Enterprise change vs Project change

Insights in Change Management—Interview with Kimberlee Williams, CEO, Ignitem (Part 1 Of 3)

What is leadership’s responsibility for driving and sustaining a nimble organization? Interview with Daryl Conner, Chairman, Conner Partners. Post 2 of 3

The strategic imperative of the "nimble organization" and the mirage. Interview with Daryl Conner

What is the Board’s Role in Strategy and Strategy Execution? Post 3 of 3

What is the Board’s Role in Strategy and Strategy Execution? Post 1 of 3

SOLD OUT! I signed up for this panel presentation, “Growth Strategy—the Board’s Role,” as soon as the fall season schedule from the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD) came out. Good thing I did—many, it seems, are interested in “practical tips to help boards apply their time and expertise effectively on strategy issues.”

In this series, I will share highlights from the line-up of incredible panelists—representing current board engagements on twelve of the most significant organizations in Canada today, including such newsmakers as: BCE, Bell Canada, Scotiabank, Loblaw, Shoppers Drug Mart, Sun Life Financial, Canadian Pacific Railway, and Imperial Oil. My own observations and comments are indicated by italics.

For readers whose interest originates out of Change Management, allow me to connect the dots: If we accept that helping people transition through change is an essential part of implementing strategy (often under the logistics of Project Management), then Change Management nests within Strategy Execution. More on this in “Change Management Methodology (Strategy Execution Methodology Series, Post 4).”

Please note this discussion moved like whitewater rafting. I have quoted panelists wherever I could capture their words accurately and have paraphrased with as much integrity as possible. Any misinterpretations here are entirely my own. 

Strategy and its Siamese twin, Strategy Execution

For some time, I have been bending the ear of several senior members of my network with the argument that, at a very high level, Strategy Execution must be under the purview of the board.

It’s a pretty simple two-part argument:

1.       What’s the spend on Strategy Execution? What if it’s $5M or $55M? Given that failure rates on strategic initiatives range from 44-70% (see “Time to kill the 70% phantom failure rate”), there is $2.2M - $38.5M directly at risk.

2.       Perhaps even more importantly, does realization of those strategies materially affect the future of the organization?

In combination, surely these are equivalent to any of the board’s other responsibilities.

To be crystal clear, I am not referring to strategy here (I had assumed that this was under the purview of the board), I am referring to the execution of the strategy (i.e., specifically to tracking high-level risks, progress, and benefits realization). Not as crazy as you might first think. Have a look at BMO’s Performance Committee’s mandate: “responsible for driving enterprise results and taking action on initiatives relating to BMO’s strategic priorities.”

No, no, and…maybe

I have had varying reactions:

·         Some give me the standard aloof “brush-off”: “Boards are, of course, responsible for signing off on strategy. Execution, though, is what management is hired for. The board does not mix in with management responsibilities.” (as if this were a written law—it is not).

·         Some will go further: “Boards have many issues on their agendas, such as performance (aka quarterly results), compensation, and risk management. It is all they can do to keep up with this pace. Not to mention the fact that many do not really know the business or business practice very well.” Much of this disturbs me, and I think it should disturb you too. And, I don’t really buy it.

·         I had a wonderful conversation with a gentleman who serves on the boards of several mid-sized organizations and he was intrigued. He acknowledged the rebuttals above as standard thinking and their dismissive tone as common. However, he also acknowledged that he shared a level of concern regarding the ability of management teams to undertake transformational strategy and the board’s culpability in that.

With this context in mind, I was excited to hear what this panel might say.

So, what did they say?

This panel really focused more on the role of the board in determining strategy—and they had some interesting things to say about this. They touched down on Strategy Execution only lightly, but it was, I thought, promising.

Ken Smith did a solid job of constructing a set of seven questions that would draw out the expertise of the panel. Mr. Smith is an ICD.D and a veteran (25 years) strategy consultant. He was chairman of SECOR consulting and is the author of “Twenty Questions Directors Should Ask About Strategy,” published by the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants.

The rock stars of the morning were:

·         Thomas C. O'Neill, F.ICD, chair of BCE and Bell Canada, Director of Scotia Bank, Loblaw, Adecco, and chair of St. Michael’s Hospital

·         Krystyna Hoeg, Director at Shoppers Drug Mart, Sun Life Financial, Canadian Pacific Railway, Imperial Oil Ltd., and Samuel Son; vice chair of Toronto East General Hospital

·         Stephen Bear, director emeritus of McKinsey and Company, former member of McKinsey’s Global Board, chair of Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation

Question 1: Why is growth important?

Thomas O’Neill hit the pressure point with, “if you can’t grow you will lose your growth multiple” and “once Canadian companies reach a certain size they must go outside” with the caveat that the risk increases exponentially. He referenced the recent acquisition of Canada Safeway by Sobeys and the related competitive acquisition of Shoppers Drug Mart by Loblaw as examples of organizations making a move in the rising current economic cycle to create some growth momentum.

Stephen Bear addressed the question by focusing on two important issues:

-          “Quality of growth”: He recommended that organizations be selective in their growth and to focus on geographies or products or other dimensions that will optimize growth. He noted that, at McKinsey, they had to come to terms with the reality that they could not grow more than 10-11% annually due to investments required to inculcate values, mentor, and provide stretch experiences.

-          Shrink to grow: He gave the example of a conventional oil and gas company that looked at the strategic horizon and the beginning of new technology to access shale gas. Company leaders realized that “they would be pushed to the outer edge of price” if they did not make a move. They made the difficult decision to shift technologies. This required them to shed conventional assets and to use that to buy shale land. This took considerable time and they had to be resilient to the pressures in the market for short-term results. 

Krystyna Hoeg led into her comment with the caveat that all strategy must start with “understanding what shareholders want” and, more specifically, with “not all growth is good,” (i.e., discrimination is warranted). She noted that “organic growth is usually acceptable and encouraged” and that “the capacity of the organization within the whole picture of what it is being undertaken” is important. 

This last point, in particular, resonated with me. As consultants, we often see strategy snowball in the execution cycle and see organizations hitting very real capacity issues. 


In the next post, I will share the panel’s responses to the remaining six questions. 

Thoughts? Reactions? Please share in the Comments section.

Related Posts:

·         Is Strategy Execution the new black?

·         Breakthroughs in strategy

Posted on: January 18, 2014 10:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Leading strategy? The three key ingredients for rejuvenation. Post 2 of 3

You can go to heaven if you want. I'd rather stay in Bermuda.”    —Mark Twain

There are, of course, many compelling reasons to take a vacation, but here is one that reconciles with your business objectives.

Go slow to go fast.

To bring our best selves forward to complex and high-pressure strategy, we need clear minds and fulsome spirits.

Optimize your rejuvenation

We all need to rejuvenate in different ways, of course. However, it seems to me there are three simple, but key, ingredients:

  1. Rest
  2. Reflect
  3. Explore

The body has physical needs. There is no point disputing this. “Mind over matter” only works until it matters. When we are physically run down, our bodies shut down for us. Let’s not get there.

A few weeks ago, my husband, my two sons, and I took a trip to Bermuda. It’s my homeland; my children were born there, and we lived there for five years in the late nineties. It is at once both familiar and intriguing. For all of us, it was a chance to kick back, sleep, eat, reflect, and explore. It was just what we needed to reenergize ourselves.

Decision One: “Go with the flow”

The first decision we made was to “go with the flow.” We slept every morning until we weren’t tired anymore. Then we ate, healthy, as needed.

Over a couple of days we could all feel our clarity coming back. We became more interested in the events around us, more curious, more demanding. A great golf game for the boys and a little exploring in the city began gearing us all up.

Our conversations turned lazily to the issues we have been wrestling with. For our teenage boys it was about how school was going, decisions around course selection, university options, and summer jobs. But without the intensity that pressure brings, our conversations were reflective and interactive.

Turning over the issues like rocks on the beach, looking at the implications less passionately, more curiously, more resourcefully, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” became “What are you interested in? What is important to you?” One conversation even turned into “If you were going to get a tattoo, what would you want on your body forever?”

Reuniting with our best selves

It has occurred to me before that under pressure of strategy execution or any other major change, we lose sight of who we are. We become a product of that environment. We get wound tighter and tighter. Our best selves fade into the background.

Returning to familiar things and places reminds us of our best selves. This gives us confidence, inspires us, rejuvenates us. All around us are memories of accomplishment and people who believe in us. This is powerful stuff. It frees us of our insecurities and feeds our courage.

Decision Two: Explore

The second decision we made was to explore?to do some things we have never done?get outside our comfort zone. I was born on this little rock, 21 miles long and 3 miles wide in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and I have only been off-shore once before. This year we decided to go whale watching. It was long-time dream of mine and my family humored me.

We were all somewhat intimidated. The sea is vast and even six miles off shore is farther than any of us could swim. The thought of seeing wild whales bigger than our 45-foot boat filled us with both awe and fear. Not to mention the risk of being seasick for six hours…

Curious to hear about our whale-watching adventure? The only thing better than a real vacation is a vicarious one. Stay tuned for Post 3 next week. Want to subscribe? Sign up top left.

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Posted on: May 02, 2013 08:05 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Leading strategy? The business case for rejuvenation. Post 1 of 3

“Going faster and faster leads either to immediate lift off or eventually to a grinding halt. Slow down to go faster,” —Gail Severini

Executing strategy is exhausting?both physically and emotionally.

It requires double-timing it at very stressful and often long-term initiatives.

Everyone needs to find ways to re-charge, re-fresh, re-juvenate.

The pace of change has changed. We need to change with it

We run our bodies down over time and, most of the time, we really don’t notice. It happens gradually with grueling early morning commutes, grabbing meals here and there as we can, long stressful days and endless commutes home, making precious time with our families, working out, etc. Most of us are busy, busy, busy. Eventually it catches up with us, but until it does we ride the crest of that wave of adrenaline and caffeine.

This takes a toll on our spirits?on our patience, resilience, and creativity. Over time, our tempers become shorter. We might find ourselves exasperated, saying things like, “I told them this a million times,” “This problem again? I thought we solved this!”, “Just make it happen,” and “What is wrong with these people?” This shutting-down process is unfortunate but also normal and avoidable.

Eventually, a weekend just isn’t enough time and space to re-charge. A holiday may seem a luxury but I have come to see it differently.

Without sufficient mental elasticity, the brain just has no room for creativity and processing complexity. Under the interminable pressures of long stretches of strategy execution, I have found my own capacity for solutions hits all-time, and embarrassing, lows. One time, I even caught myself saying, “We can’t change it. Just suck it up.” Wow, who was that person?

“Why?” The business case for a holiday

Our organizations need us operating at our best. Executing strategy is perhaps one of the single-most under-rated drivers of the quality of life of our own families as well as our communities and economies. Particularly in the midst of current global power shifts, it is critical that we preserve the viability and competitiveness of our organizations.

The nature of strategic change now is at the highest levels of transformation that we have ever seen: demographics are shifting—buying power and economic growth from West to East; business models are turning upside-down what might have been Business-to-Business becomes Business-to-Consumer; business cycles for new products and therefore business viability are shorter than ever (just ask RIM or Best Buy) and there are more knowledge workers in my network than I ever imagined possible.  

We are all working more hours with more personal risk than ever. And, concurrently, the demands for resilience and creativity have never been higher. Seems to me that the pace of our work has changed from a marathon with a two-week holiday to an endless series of sprints.

What are the three key ingredients to rejuvenating? And what is the story of the whale sighting above? Stay tuned for Post 2 next week.

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Posted on: April 27, 2013 11:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Breakthrough innovation is “simplicity on the far side of complexity.” Post 1

“I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.”?Oliver Wendell Holmes

What does breakthrough innovation look like?

Let’s start with a common reference point. Say, something boring made stunning.

Something you thought you would never use, like, or buy that you suddenly reconsider.

A friend sent me this great video( of modular, multi-purpose furniture. “Yawn,” you say? Look again.

This stuff is elegant and remarkable:

  • Functional: Tables serve as seats or desks. Bed units are also wall units, desks, sofas, etc. Still yawning?  Wait, this is not your grandmother’s Murphy bed.
  • Breakthrough design: A Murphy bed takes up 12” of wall space with a box spring adaptation—it weighs 450 lbs, but operates at a finger touch on a hydraulic lift; a built-in desk does not have to be cleared to fold down; end tables turn into dining room tables to seat eight.
  • Quality: Designs have minimal moving parts, solid steel construction; they work with finger-tip ease and have a life-time warranty.
  • Modern and complementary: Not only does the bed itself have unique and modern style but there is also an entire line of complementary pieces.  And entire apartment can be outfitted with the style and additional space-saving benefits.
  • Differentiator: This changes the way one thinks about multi-purpose furniture, and can change the way the user lives in his or her space.

Everything about this furniture is deliberate, thoughtful, and optimized. Look again at the hinge on the bunk bed at 4:24?it is below center so that the bed folds under the shelf. Even big parts like the fold-down double bed work silently and move effortlessly. 

“Complete Design”

Yes, the end product looks so elegant as to be simple. However, as Ron Barth explains, the furniture systems represent “complete design.” They are the culmination of multi-discipline collaboration: every design involves a furniture designer, a mechanical engineer, and a hardware company. This requires collaboration of a higher order.

Something tells me that achieving this level of innovation (balancing creativity, precision, and quality) has inherent challenges. There are three competing value systems and design criteria to balance. And there is risk on the order of magnitude of: “Can this be done?” and “Will it sell?”

This is not for the faint of heart.

Characteristics of the innovation experience

My own experience with product development involved:

  • Researching current market and known market needs and forecasting nascent needs
  • Envisioning a product that does not exist in that market as yet
  • Working across the organization to design and plan
  • Delivering (think pig in a python)

These include and go by many names and disciplines, such as market research and strategy, product management, marketing management. Even project management is brought in for execution. However, one thing was crystal clear: a journey of this kind is not linearand not that predictable.

Innovation requires many different professionals in a process that is intentionally disruptive.

Intentionally disruptive

One can either take a big risk and go for the “big bang” (long development and launch full product) or do more rapid-cycle development. Either way, there are always unknowns, and skeptics abound. One must be constantly re-building commitment in the core team, selling the vision across silos, horse-trading for scope (and resources), modifying and re-prioritizing and re-planning. It is quite the ride.

The changes these products bring often alter the way people do their jobs internally. They disrupt individuals’ expectations and can require them to shift their beliefs and behaviors.

As an example, rolling out online banking for retail customers (I know—it seems ancient now but it was only 15 years ago) changed the way individuals banked and changed the face of banking. Among the changes? Less traffic to branches; more and different inquiries to call centers; different types of fraud and money laundering.  All of these required role and process changes in the organization.

The old-school approach to product development (pretty much top-down, big bang) was complex enough ?now, however, there is pressure to keep market share by rolling out change quickly, even if in smaller pieces. 

Now forward-looking organizations run a multi-year, rolling roadmap of product development that provides for frequent new product roll outs. Just think about Apple’s track record since its first mp3 player.  Internally, organizations may be preparing multiple upgrades on the same products concurrently.  This level of complexity creates high levels of change, and corresponding stress and anxiety.

Where do breakthroughs come from?

Imagine that to develop and executive your strategy you need to go beyond the core delivery team to call on the brightest minds across your organization, across your supply chain, across your customer base.

It almost makes me giddy—all that potential is thrilling and daunting at the same time.

The first mindset shift is getting people to maintain two concurrent frames of reference:

  1. Preservation and Optimization: operational efficiency and quality on current daily operations.  This is the safe place for most current leaders.  They are good at it; they derive authority and identity from it.  Bonuses and promotions have been dependent on delivering consistency.
  2. Change, breakdown, re-engineer and re-build: In the design phase there is a need to challenge everything—every premise, every workflow, and every output. This is often difficult for those who designed the current version even while it is thrilling for those newer to the team. In the execution phase, the experience is completely different for start-ups vs. established offers.  Let’s go down the path of replacing an established offer?organizations typically prefer to build a concurrent offer and then transition customers off of the old and onto the new.  This requires organizations to run two offers for the period of the transition.  

These two priorities (stability and change) are in conflict with each other and balancing these on a daily basis puts some bandwidth stress, both emotional and physical, on leaders and their teams.  

The dream and the reality

Imagine that you can create a customer experience unlike anyone else’s?so simple, seamless, and optimized that your organization is the obvious choice, that even emotional loyalty to an organization that could/would deliver that is outweighed by the pure superiority of the experience itself. 

Organizations say they are trying for that every day?yet “stuff” gets in the way:

  • General comments: “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” “We tried this before and failed,” “So thisis the latest fad?it will blow over.”
  • Fear and insecurity: “Will I have a job after this change?” and “WIIFM?”
  • Power and ego: “What will my domain look like when this is done?”

The secret weapons: understanding, alignment, and commitment

“Simplicity on the far side of complexity” begins with the leadership team.

It begins with a full and detailed understanding of both the dream and the reality. Most organizations assume this. And we know where this leads.

Most organizations assemble the leadership team to develop and anoint the strategy, and then they parse out the components and expect that it will all synchronize. But it doesn’t.

Conner Partners, with over 40 years of execution experience in observing patterns of winners and losers, has revealed a few potent interventions. Leaders often do believe in the strategy. However, commitment at the outset is usually a superficial “uninformed optimism” that breaks down quickly.

A fuller exploration of the strategic intent and the moving parts of the execution plan up front reveals the conflicts that need to be addressed and resolved.

This is work?it challenges the “stuff” that sabotages strategy. The investment in developing explicit, deliberate, and thoughtful alignment around the impact of the strategy pays off. In that process, real commitment can begin.

On the other side of the strategic intent work we see a much more sober, but clear and committed team. Their understanding of the challenges, the opportunity, and the plan forward is crystal clear. It is a form of simplicity on the other side of complexity.

In the next post we’ll look at the nature of dynamic and collaborative breakthrough innovation.

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Posted on: March 29, 2013 09:14 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Breakthroughs in strategy

“In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.” Albert Einstein

Kids these days have a phrase: “FAIL.”  It means something like “epic failure” and describes scenarios often so common or standard that when someone fails it is all the more astounding. A huge pop culture industry has evolved around those occurrences that are particularly funny. It started with shows like “America’s Funniest Videos” and now “Ridiculousness”( takes it to the next level.

Seems to me that someone could make a show around “FAIL” in organizational strategy.

How can we all get out of this fail loop?

This little rant is inspired by an excellent post from Bill Fox called, “Jump, Rinse, Repeat.  Why do we keep implementing change like this?”(

Cliff jumping

Bill starts with, “It’s like going to the edge of a 50-foot cliff and jumping when all you’ve witnessed are others ahead of you jumping away. As a result, you don’t see what they did before they jumped, what the landing area looks like, or what happened when they landed!”

Why do we keep implementing change like this? The cliff-jumping metaphor is a great one and it makes my response obvious: Because it's more fun and there are relatively few consequences. I am only being a little glib. Having spent 20+ years in strategy execution as an internal and external consultant in several dozen organizations, I have come to believe that there are systemic issues, as in “built into the systems and culture of the organization.” 

These systemic issues are bigger than individual leaders alone, and changing the system seems like such an impossible challenge that the only option is to keep jumping within the system.

The reality in the back rooms

In back rooms, people will tell you: "this is the third time we are taking a run at this strategy," "people may get fired but that's rare," or "those who get fired are the ones charged with executing the strategy and not those who designed it." There is little connection between the ideal strategy for the organization and the feasible strategy for the organization. 

Those in execution are always preparing the contingency decoys. They have to—it’s a survival technique. In other words, the initiative fell short because x competitor changed its strategy, there was a y change in external environment (economic collapse, FX rate blind side, etc.) or z supplier failed (delivered late, over budget, or inferior product). 

The real problems are more like:

  • Executives are required to focus more on quarterly reporting than they are on three-year strategic plans. This spawns compromises that always undermine the long term.
  • This is too much change for the organization (i.e., bandwidth, adaptation capacity)
  • The inter-dependencies (read cross-silo) are not well understood
  • Leaders are not fully committed because they have to hedge for survival, promotion, next move, etc.

Three suggestions to “jump” the system

Stop leaping from strategy into execution

I know, it feels like plenty of time is spent upfront, yet we still fail, so stay with me.

Invest more time in better planning. Expect that this learning investment can be amortized over several years.

Try a few different things, like:

  • Play through the strategy with the whole team and probe the cross-functional implications
  • Bring those who are executing the change into the strategy process and make those designing strategy work in the business, on the floor. 

Jettison “creative tension”

The notion of “creative tension” suggests that when executives have to compete (for ideas, resources, power, etc.), they perform better. This is a fallacy.

The only way to succeed going forward is to collaborate—it produces the best ideas and optimal cooperation within the whole organization. To some extent, this can be accomplished by alignment and tools like Balanced Scorecard but, apparently, there are limitations.

Internal competition is toxic to collaboration. Collaboration is a major culture change?invest in it appropriately.

Stop firing people for failing—fire for incompetence

Failure and incompetence are actually qualitatively different, but they’re hard to differentiate. You want to keep competent people who failed, so that the organization does not make the same mistake next time.

If we always do what we always did…

The obvious answer is this: if we want different results, we have to do different things. 

Alas, what may be obvious is not simple.

Posted on: March 03, 2013 12:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

"If you havenÆt got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me."

- Alice Roosevelt Longworth