Sometimes a strategic initiative resembles a low-budget talent show: a hodgepodge of activity involving orchestrating people who have little real understanding of how they contribute to the performance. It looks rushed. There is much sizzle but little substance.
The strategic initiative analogy is when an executive identifies a business problem, feels schedule pressure, and sees a solution that looks like it should work. Many times the solution results in marginal improvement rather than profound improvement.
It is easy – especially when feeling stress – for people to skip the conceptually-difficult work of defining problems in favor of the short-term gratification of designing solutions. Those pressured managers seem to be saying
“I’m so busy trying to solve my problems that I can’t stop to think about what my problems are.”
A problem well defined is a problem half solved
In these situations where there is insufficient thought to the match of design and problem, I recall this simple principle: the purpose of a strategic initiative is closing a performance gap. So, I ask this question,
What is the performance gap you are trying to close?
In strategic planning terms, an organization needs to consider where it is presently, where it will arrive if it stays on the same performance trajectory, and where it would like to be if the trajectory is unacceptable.
A complementary approach is illustrated in the nearby graphic. First, we ask for essential outcomes and then we narrow in on the vital few strategic initiatives. Organizations typically have many goals, and the process of suggesting gaps, evaluating them, and prioritizing them leads to the final selection. One good question is,
Which performance gaps cross boundaries and also provide leverage?
The Rut of Solutioneering
Solutioneering is a term that means a preoccupation with technology and solutions. This preoccupation is at the expense of problem definition. It is a tendency to mis-frame symptoms as root causes. It is a bias towards the solution rather than users, needs, problems, and opportunities.
I have seen very smart, educated people fall into the solutioneering rut, so I don’t think the problem is one of intelligence. It is more of lack of discipline in problem definition, possibly due to the perception of limited available time and information.
Training As an Example of Solutioneering
Here is an example of solutioneering: A HR department decided to offer training to some target group of people at the Director level, offered by a prestigious northeastern university business professor.
One of the participants was responsible for running a $50 million business unit (that would likely grow ten-fold over the next few years). He told me (in confidence) that he was “strongly encouraged” to attend training. He said, “I knew going in that my time was better spent growing my business, but this is part of playing the corporate game.” The implication: training added no value, and distracted from important business objectives.
His corporation had many business challenges, and the professor dispensed sound theory that was relevant to the business challenge. But it the training was a solution, not a problem. It wasn’t fitted to an integrated strategy of change and development. It was transactional. A solution. It had no apparent impact and was forgotten.
This example is not an isolated one. Much training is wasted, because it isn’t directly linked to a business challenge. Unfortunately and too often, training yields little lasting result, because there is not a clear definition of expected outcomes or metrics to show those outcomes have been met.
If including training in your strategic initiative, start with understanding the performance gap from a business perspective. Then link the benefits to specific and relevant knowledge or skill development.
Instead of “train and hope” to boost individual competencies, reframe the effort in terms of a story of addressing a business challenge and building a performance gap.
Tip # 1: Graph the Performance Gap
To help identify performance gaps, draw a trend line showing the current and expected trend of a key result area over time. Is your goal to increase, decrease, or stabilize the outcome
(trend line)? It raises a natural question, Over time, what causes a change in the trend? This can help you find leading indicators and can help the organization select and prioritize the right strategic initiatives.
Tip #2: Know How Your Business Model Contributes to Performance
Enterprise performance involves changing the business model. You need to dig in and understand the model.
Earlier, I suggested that training may have limited benefit. Some basic knowledge of business models could make a significant improvement in strategic initiative definition and execution.
What other methods does your organization use to identify performance gaps? What are other barriers?
- The Purpose of a Strategic Initiative is Closing a Performance Gap (leadingstrategicinitiatives.wordpress.com)
- Strategic Initiatives | What Are the Metrics That Matter? (leadingstrategicinitiatives.com)
- Four Things Strategic Initiative Leaders Need to Know About Requirements (leadingstrategicinitiatives.com)