Vision into Results….Definition of a Strategic Initiative

This blog provides thought leadership on strategic initiatives. It is a resource for practitioners, executives, and academics.

It also provides additional information for participants in my popular seminar, Leading Strategic Initiatives (Program Management) [See top of page for a link].

Definition of a Strategic Initiative

A strategic initiative (SI) is an endeavor intended to achieve three interrelated outcomes:

  1. A boundary-spanning vision or “strategic intent”
  2. Realization of important benefits to “strategic” stakeholders and
  3. Transformation of the organization

Alternatively, you could say that “a strategic initiative is the start of something important;” but, that statement does not have the same power as the three-part definition.

Closing Performance Gaps

A strategic initiative closes a performance gap. That gap could be the capture of an opportunity or the remedy of a problem.  This simple axiom is a powerful screen for recognizing and chartering strategic initiatives.

How to Define a Strategic Initiative

I regularly use the three-part definition as management tool for defining an individual strategic initiative.  I (with the team) write a short statement for each of the parts, and then combine them into a single statement.  Here is an example,

UZH Healthcare System is launching this strategic to increase improve market share by 20% in the next three years, and change the culture of the delivery system. Doing so will increase its stature in the industry and create a new business model.

The Initiative Management Process

Organizations have many problems and opportunities that need attention. The better ones have a defined initiative management process for identifying strategic initiative candidates, prioritization, and selection. One useful tool is the Balanced Score Card, and the principles of that tool reinforce this point: It is better to have a few strategic initiatives, rather than many.

A useful rule of thumb is that an organization should only have about five active strategic initiatives at any given time.

The phrase “strategic initiative” is used with increasing frequency in job titles (for example and analysis, see Vice President of Strategic Initiatives or Director of Strategic Initiatives, SEC financial filings, and press releases.

Strategic initiatives are NOT

Here are some common mistakes that organizations make when referring to strategic initiatives:

  • Strategic initiatives are NOT the same thing as strategic objectives or strategic goals. Strategic initiatives are the vehicle for achieving a strategic goal – “closing a performance gap,” as stated in the beginning of this article. Strategic initiatives are tools for turning vision into results, not hype.
  • Strategic initiatives are NOT studies or analytics.  Although it is useful to find patterns in the data, it only yields insight.  That is NOT strategy, nor is does it meet the definition of a strategic initiative.  This is a common mistake made in many job descriptions.
  • Strategic initiatives are (usually) NOT single-silo strategic projects. A strategic initiative is most-typically a corporate program that activates cross-functional competencies. In the opinion of CEOs, a strategic initiative is aimed at creating new markets, products, productivity improvements and the like.  Of course, strategic projects in IT, HR, Operations might be referred to as initiatives; I would only designate them as a strategic initiative if – in some way – they supported corporate and business strategy. (You can get more valuable insight on corporate, business, and functional strategy in this article.)

Program Management

Successful strategic initiatives apply a disciplined approach for initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing.  However, strategic initiatives are more complicated (and complex) than projects, thus there is a need for a nuanced approach. For readers who are familiar with the distinctions between program management and project management, strategic initiatives are an application of program management.

All strategic initiatives are programs, but not all programs are strategic initiatives!

I caution those who intend to apply a complex “methodology” that the skill of leadership is more important than the presence of rigorous forms and processes.

The selection of a program manager and program team is a critical success factor!

There are many good articles in this blog.  If you don’t see the topic you are looking for, contact me.

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About Greg Githens

Vice President of Strategic Initiatives. a.k.a., The Strategic Thinking Coach. I'm a hands-on strategy & execution consultant with experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. I'm available for extended or short-term engagements. For an introduction to pragmatic tools that turns vision into results, attend my popular seminar, "Leading Strategic Initiatives (Program Management)."
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15 Responses to Vision into Results….Definition of a Strategic Initiative

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