These days, when I partner with a client to help them plan and implement a strategic initiative — meaning, one that executes business strategy — I am fortunate enough to be brought in during the early stages. The chief executive is figuring out how she can evolve organizational culture to meet new competitive challenges; the human capital leader wants to retool employees to support a new business strategy; or, a divisional president wants to adopt a Lean/Six Sigma capability across the enterprise.

We collaborate to answer the big questions that set the stage for success [link to enlightened decision makers post] and develop what I call a change strategy – what exactly they ultimately want to achieve, why they are going to do it, what happens if they don’t change, the specific potential benefits and risks of changing, how to help people through change, and the high level roadmap to get there. Through workshops, alignment discussions, interviews and coaching, I help get leadership teams involved in deciding and aligned around these fundamentals and they end up with a better sense of the complexity of the desired change, who it will impact and how, and how best to implement that change across the organization or enterprise.

Then we get to implementation (or execution, depending on the terminology you use). Here, too, early planning is tremendously valuable…yet terrifyingly underutilized. Even when a top team is sitting in one of DT’s Change Masters Strategic Working Sessions, they may be thinking they already know enough until I start taking them through the big questions. They usually get a quicky reality check and then we can begin the exciting work of building a foundation for a successful execution.

I have seen plenty of strategic initiatives run off course because of unforeseen consequences during implementation [link to blog post on Thinking Holistically]. One of the keys to avoiding costly surprises is to kick off a strategic change initiative effectively. A strategic initiative that starts off poorly is like a plane that is built in mid-flight – the chances of a successful landing are low. So how do you kick off a strategic initiative or project for success?

Consider these 3 (three) pieces of advice:

  1. Know what success looks like…and how to help people at every impacted level translate that into what they need to do.
    • The great projects start with a clear, compelling vision. By now, you should have heard that. To kick off a strategic initiative well, the vision needs to be translated into measurable goals. I find it effective to plot goals alongside the activities on the high level change roadmap, indicating how success will be measured as it progresses. If people are uncomfortable with this level of commitment, that’s a red flag and the decision makers need to be coached.
    • When decision makers are on the same page about what results they want to see at the enterprise level and by when, managers below them can begin to translate those high level measures into more tactical goals. For example, with well constructed goals, a product management team understands success isn’t measured by how many employees go through Lean/Six Sigma training or ‘get certified,’ but rather by, say, positive impact on customer adoption of new products or a reduction in product errors requiring costly fixes.

  2. Know the capabilities your program team must bring to the effort and make sure they have genuine authority to lead, not just execute.
    • A former colleague of mine who led the transformation of a Fortune 50 finance function once shared that a successful change starts with the capabilities on the program team, and he couldn’t have been more right. The capabilities of the folks in charge of executing a strategic initiative – typically called a program or project team – should reflect the nature of the change. Imagine trying to negotiate support from senior executives in a traditionally autonomous global organization without diplomacy skills. Alternatively, if a new culture is being cultivated, the program leader ought to respect and embrace, if not possess, culture change skills.
    • When a program team is well led and well equipped to drive a major change forward, the last thing that should stand in their way is hierarchy, egos or power struggles. The folks overseeing the executive of a strategic initiative are often the ones with their ears to the ground, so their recommendations and decisions must carry the weight that comes with having open leadership support and true empowerment.

  3. Value discipline and entrepreneurship equally.
    • The aim here is as follows: Be clear, consistent and unrelenting in the goal AND allow people the freedom to achieve the goal in a way that suits their circumstances. Don’t be so insistent on following a plan that you miss the super-enthusiastic team that has left the pack to try something exciting and new on their own.
    • Find out what they’re doing and share those ideas across the enterprise. The program team in charge of executing a strategic initiative is the best distribution system for new ideas because of its’ communications infrastructure and broad access to all impacted teams. Change doesn’t happen when we control people – change happens when we establish a goal, create boundaries and incentives, and allow people to create that change [make this a quote].

These are 3 of the most important priorities in kicking off a major strategic initiative for success.

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How To Kick Off A Major Strategic Initiative or Project For Success