Strategic Initiative Case Study: IBM’s Speed Team

Here is a good story that shows strategic initiatives can sustain their improvements and become institutionalized.

IBM continues to use a program it calls Speed Teams to identify opportunities for improvements.  The first iteration of the strategic initiative was in November 1999, when IBM’s VP of business transformation and chief information officer (Steve Ward), pulled together a group of 21 high performers.  He gave this first speed team a simple assignment: Get 100,000 people worldwide – the IT group — moving on the fast development of Web-oriented applications.

Said one of the co-leaders, Jane Harper,

“Our plan, when we started this, was to come together, look at what works, look at why projects get bogged down, create some great recommendations about how to achieve speed, get executive buy-in, and try to make those recommendations part of the fabric of the business.”

One of early realization was that identifying and removing speed bumps was essential to project speed.  The article identified a few speed bumps for IBM, as listed in the exhibit below.

Causes of Slow(Speed Bumps)

  • Process steps that overvalue quality and undervalue timing
  • Process that is not tailored to the specifics of the project
  • Overly rigorous measurement
  • Information overload
  • Priorities not clear
  • Poor meetings with little emphasis on decisions
Causes of Speed(Accelerators)

  •  Strong leaders 
  • Talented people
  • Appropriate metrics
  • Rapid communications
  • Fast adjustments 
  • Clear goals

An interesting quote from speed team member Karen Ughetta,

“A lot of people hear the word “speed” and think that we want them to keep doing the same thing, only faster, harder, and for longer hours, But we’re really about getting people to change the way they do things, about blowing up the process and discussing ways to avoid speed bumps.”

Leadership Lessons for Strategic Initiatives

Here are some of the lessons from IBM’s Speed Team Strategic Initiative:

  • You don’t need a comprehensive project plan, rather you need a simple and compelling vision.  Steve Ward’s directive was simple, “get people moving faster.” You can quickly launch strategic initiatives.  The scope of this strategic initiative was enormous and is still being felt to this day:  100,000 people working globally.  How do you do this?
  • Get good people and trust them– When you have good people on the team, you don’t extensive rules. One characteristic of these good people is that they are able apply strategic thinking competencies to cope with ambiguity.  (For another IBM example, in the 1990s IBM recognized that it needed to migrate its business model into services. It identified its top 10% of high performers/potential and asked them to work on the strategic initiative.)
  • Strategy can be bottom up and opportunistic. With good people who can practice strategic thinking, the organization finds many opportunities.
  • Process can get in the way of breakthrough performance.  IBM does not instruct people to disregard process, but rather to pay attention to the spirit of the law, rather than absolute, rigorous compliance to the letter of the procedure.
  • Leverage temporary assignments for cultural change. When people came on, they knew that they would make an intense contribution to this goal, and move back into their home organizations.  There were at least two benefits of this: 1) they could carry back new ideas and coach others in those ideas, and 2) they could work on the strategic initiative at an intense level.
  • Innovative approaches can become institutionalized. Strategic initiatives can morph into something different (For example, IBM now has a program called “Deep Blue” as part of its talent identification and development process)

You can find more detail in these two articles:

“Faster Company” by Scott Kirsner,

“Report From the Past – Jane Harper” by Anni Layne

What do you like about this case?


About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
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1 Response to Strategic Initiative Case Study: IBM’s Speed Team

  1. Pingback: Five Rules for Managing Complex Strategic Initiatives | Leading Strategic Initiatives

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