The pace of change in today’s business environment is greater than it has ever been. But this has been true for decades – for a long time, the ‘current’ environment has been more dynamic than ever before. What is different in today’s business world is the pervasiveness of that dynamism. That means the rules are changing because waiting to react in that environment puts you perilously behind, in a race that punishes those who can’t maintain the pace. The question now is not ‘How do I keep up?’ but ‘How do I focus on the future so that I am leading from the front, driving change instead of responding to it?’
The answer is strategy – but strategy redefined. Strategy that is imbued with action. Strategy that is adaptive. Strategy that connects your organisation to its realisation.
A new model for strategy: constantly adapting to an uncertain future
In order to thrive – or perhaps even survive – in this highly dynamic business environment, increasingly requires strategy-making that allows you to evolve at the pace of change and be nimble in the face of uncertainty. It requires future-focused thinking that’s fluid and activities that constantly adapt as conditions and events unfold.
Yet, business strategy has become a very static, analytical discipline where plans that create the illusion of certainty are valued over planning for an uncertain future. As a result, research shows that the success rate for the implementation of strategic plans is dismal, with the percentage of failed implementations ranging anywhere from 63% to 90%, depending on the research. At the heart of this failure epidemic, is a lack of intentionality around engaging the organisation in strategic activity.
Using projects and a project mindset allows businesses to imbue their strategy with action and activity. Strategic projects are an intentional means of connecting a business with the capabilities and experience of its people. They turn strategic intent into operational reality. The right type of strategic projects ensure that the organisation is consistently and persistently adapting to change in the business landscape that serve their overarching strategic goals.
This allows your business to respond to change in a rapid and targeted way. You can unlock opportunities that maximise the experience for your customers while minimising the risk and impact to your ongoing operations.
Strategy is an investment in your business’s future
Projects are almost always a business investment – an investment that is seeking a positive return.
The future-focused nature of strategy makes strategic projects the ideal investment vehicle for your business’s future. To effectively leverage the power of projects to drive high-impact strategic returns, senior leaders need to ensure that their strategic projects are prudent investments.
The strategic projects we’re talking about are not big transformational undertakings – high-risk bets with very long odds of success.
The most effective strategic projects are developed to address specific improvement opportunities that serve your overarching strategic direction. They can be as specific as an incremental operational improvement, or as exploratory as an experiment that tests a hypothesis to determine its business value. These projects have very specific attributes:
Short-duration, hard-hitting activities
Target a specific strategic outcome
Undertaken by a small cross-functional team with the greatest knowledge about the improvement opportunity being pursued
Prioritised based on their business value
Your strategic projects’ most important quality is that they are focused on shaping the business’s future. This brings the future-focused work of strategy into the present and takes specific, tangible action that’s directly connected to your strategic objectives.
Making project investments that maximise your strategic impact
Effective strategic investment means focusing on projects with the greatest business value as well as maximising your people’s ability to successfully complete them.
This requires ‘layers’ of leadership focus where each succeeding level generates greater returns on your organisation’s strategic project investments. This, in turn, increases the value of your leadership and your business’s ability to adapt.
The Strategic Project Leadership Evolution
Many leaders focus only on starting and, as a result, have a continuous range of improvement projects that either never get off the ground or languish in an incomplete state, as teams struggle to find time in their ‘day jobs’ to finish them. Some of the most aspirational don’t get traction because it never seems to be the right time.
Many organisations start a lot of projects in the hope that will mean that they’ll finish more projects. Even when this is true, it rarely means you’ll complete the projects that are the most strategically important to the business.
The most critical projects will often get done under the pressure of crisis but fail to produce particularly innovative or cost-effective results. As a result, these initiatives only provide recovery and rarely provide a positive return on investment.
To move above the line and begin getting a positive return, you need to make wise investments. This comes from selecting meaningful projects – projects that drive strategic purpose. A triage focus means you select the best project investments and eliminate those that are not a high-value use of your time, energy and capital – at least not today.
The criteria for assessing your projects are strategic value and capacity. You prioritise projects according to their criticality to your strategic agenda, then undertake the highest priority projects that your organisation has the capacity to effectively complete.
Triage is not an event – it’s a process. The power of projectifying your strategic activities lies in the continuous process of assessing your strategic portfolio and adjusting the projects it includes, based on current priorities and emerging opportunities. By ensuring that your undertaking projects of the highest strategic value and maximising the chances of successfully completing them, your making good strategic project investments that allows your business to consistently improve.
With a foundation of sound project selection and the establishment of a project mindset, you begin growing your organisation’s ‘project muscle’ by building capability.
Developing the key skills, business practices and enabling systems required for your teams to do projects well – not merely tracking the results they’re producing – means that you start getting better project outcomes. By creating a project framework that encourages project team autonomy, embraces the dynamic project environment to explore ideas and ensures that day-to-day activities remain focused on the strategic objectives, you’ll become more effective at transforming strategic insights into improvements in the operational environment.
The ‘learn by doing’ nature of this capability development will make your teams more creative, better engaged and more productive. This drives innovation that creates a significant competitive advantage for your business.
With a skilful and effective project mindset established, you can expand the bandwidth of your projects. As your projects begin to unleash more of your team’s capability in a self-directed manner and relieve the business’s leadership of many of the non-value-adding activities, you create time for the ‘new’.
You give leaders the ability to initiate projects: not simply in response to disruptive influences, but to create the disruption that the market and your competitors are responding to. This creates more organisational time and attention for translating strategic insight into action and activity, as well as using strategic activity to create better strategic insight.
Your employees won’t need to be made to buy into your projects – they will become the source of them. It’s at this level of development that you become a thriving organisation that rewards its shareholders and delights its customers no matter what the business climate brings.
An ongoing evolution
When projects become part of your strategic execution framework and what people see as their day-to-day roles, the following starts to happen:
The organisation’s work becomes better connected to your business purpose and has forward momentum, rather than being mired in faithfully reproducing the best of the past.
You add depth to the ideas and intelligence that shapes your strategic thinking and direction. Strategic projects undertaken by the people on the frontline of creating customer value will inform your strategy-making in ways that market analysis never can.
You begin to leverage the capabilities and diversity of skills and experience across your entire organisation to drive strategic development. Your workplace culture becomes the engine room of strategic activity – one that is perpetual and not in need of constant management attention.
Most importantly, a project mindset gives executives the ability to expand their leadership impact by shaping the business future they aspire to create and enabling the strategic activity that turns it into reality.
How effectively are you managing your strategic investments? How intentional is your business at driving strategic activity? What framework is in place for your strategy to adapt as the business landscape changes? Does five years of strategic activity represent five annual strategic planning cycles or five years of strategic evolution?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.