Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

Breakthroughs in strategy

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

cliffjumpingKids 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.

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4 Comments so far
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Love the Einstein quote!

My struggle is that the system begins (for the way I think) at the board level. They are driving the quarterly reporting.

And … board reform seems to have dropped off the earth.

Comment by Ron Koller (@changeadviser)

Ron, IMHO, you are DEAD on. I am currently interviewing people on that and getting some interesting, tho not optimistic, responses. I will share back in a post some time in the future. Thanks for commenting.

Comment by Gail Severini

It also occurs to me that you might find “Fixing the Game” by Roger Martin interesting.

Comment by Gail Severini

[…] published about my Cutter IT Journal article prompted an excellent post by Gail Severini, “Breakthroughs in Strategy.” In her post, Severini concluded, “If we want different results, we have to do different […]

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