Changing Behaviors: An Insurmountable Challenge in Strategy Execution?

Tuesday, November 01, 2011 | Category :

By Dennis Cohen, Ph.D.

Why don’t businesses change, even when it’s absolutely necessary? Because of an in-built conflict: Organizations are set up for efficiency and human beings are wired for habitual behavior. This combination produces the “titanic effect” in even the smallest company: It seems to take forever to change course. In a turbulent economy with shrinking opportunities and incessant risk, changing course on a dime—to dodge the iceberg or hook the big fish—is essential. It is much more difficult to be successful as the winds of a strong economy have died down. (Even turkeys can fly in a hurricane, but now they are crashing all around us.) To meet today’s challenges, companies need to be able to execute strategy and change plans with agility.

BTS has developed a simple model to explain what is needed to execute strategy:E=AMC. Strategy Execution is a function of Alignment, Mindset, and Capabilities. It is tempting to assume that once strategic alignment is achieved and the optimal mindset supporting engagement is adopted, implementation will fall into place naturally. Alignment and Mindset are important and necessary, but they are not enough. Success will depend on the ability to change, to get from where the company is now to what it must become—and what it must become is constantly changing.

Successful execution depends on core project leadership and management behaviors. Actions necessary to respond to change are temporary endeavors, e.g. initiatives that conflict with the habits and assumptions of the core operations of the company (what Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble in The Other Side of Innovation call ‘the performance engine’). Individuals who must execute and support these initiatives need to change behaviors formed over time by culture and habits at the perceived core of business success. In other words, most people will be well outside of their comfort zone.

Senior leaders are required to support standards that facilitate initiatives and become effective sponsors for the corporate strategy. Middle managers become initiative managers, often leading a team that does not directly report to them. They may face stakeholders who are not automatically aligned with what they are doing because it conflicts with day-to-day operations. Team members who are comfortable being part of a familiar, ongoing process are now involved in something that they have never done before and are not familiar with. Even career project managers who are good at managing process need to increase their focus on leading people across the entire project ecosystem.

How well are you doing, or will you do, translating strategy into executed action? Once you have established alignment and mindset, so that everyone agrees on the strategic direction and is engaged in making it happen, you will need to take inventory of core competencies needed to produce results. Here is a checklist of the central core competencies:

  • Have executives translated strategy into a portfolio of initiatives and projects necessary for execution?
  • Have managers responsible for managing portfolios set priorities and controlled the number of active initiatives and projects to avoid overloading organizational capacity?
  • Is the portfolio balanced against the needs of operations (the performance engine of the company)?
  • Do project/initiative sponsors and review board members know how to support an environment for success?
  • Do managers leading the projects have basic project and leadership management skills? They will need to supplement the standard leadership competencies because those competencies are geared to the operations environment rather than the initiative change environment.
  • Is everyone focused on the people-oriented issues that are the most likely to inhibit execution?
  • Is everyone leading their initiatives with long-term financial issues in mind to balance against immediate budget and resource constraints?

Future blogs will discuss why these core competencies are essential and how BTS can provide learning solutions, based on business simulations and experiential learning, to embed them quickly and effectively in your execution process.

About the Author: Dennis Cohen, Ph.D is the Senior Director, Project Leadership & Management at BTS.

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