How to Keep Lettuce Crunchy and Other Strategy Execution Lessons

How to Keep Lettuce Crunchy and Other Strategy Execution Lessons

I learned two lessons in college that I still think about – one in the kitchen and one as a strategy execution consultant. My professor claimed during a cell biology lesson that if you leave iceberg lettuce in water for about 20 minutes its cells expand as they soak up the water. He said that many chefs knew that soaking lettuce in cold water made it seem fresher and crunchier but few understood that it was because the cells were packed to the bursting point.

I went home for the holidays eager to share this new lesson with my mother. This is where I learned the consulting lesson.

My mother had been taught that in order to keep salad crisp, you should throw a slice of bread into the salad as you are making it and then pull the bread out just before serving. The thinking was that the bread soaked up the excess moisture that would otherwise lead to wilting.

When I shared my professor’s theory with her, I assumed that we would immediately begin saving a nickel per month due to all that saved bread. Instead I was surprised to find that my mother was not about to change the way she made salad because of something her son’s biology professor said, not even after I showed her that the lettuce didn’t wilt.

Strategy execution is about transformation. It is about the systematic implementation of the changes needed to move an organization forward. Unfortunately, as you try to convince people to change the way they do things, many of them react exactly like my mother did.

The change management field is built around several general principles in how to manage people through change: thoroughly communicate how/why/what change is happening, look for the “what’s-in-it-for-me” for employees, communicate using two-way dialog, remove barriers to change, celebrate success, describe a “burning platform”, etc. Strategy execution specialists bring a few more key approaches to these basic doctrines.

Engage Around the Big Picture. A simple business case (e.g. this initiative will help us improve process efficiency and lower operating costs) often isn’t enough. To embrace change it helps to understand how a particular initiative is aligned with the overall strategy of the organization (e.g. we want to bring low cost healthcare solutions to those suffering from an ailment. If we can improve this process, the solution could be better, more consistent, and cheaper than anyone else in the market). Employees will be far more motivated to change if they believe in the strategy. Strategy professionals typically have the skills needed to articulate and communicate that story.

Make Strategy Everyone’s Job. Strategy is a team sport. Too many strategy professionals think that because they are good at it they should do all of the work themselves. But good strategy execution relies on others to implement. I can tell my mother that this is a better way or (if she were an employee) order her to follow a new process, but as long as she can dismiss the idea as an outsider’s, change will be painful. Good strategy execution professionals understand that their job is to facilitate a consensus around a shared vision rather than simply dream up a vision in a vacuum.

Pick Your Battles. Strategy is about focus and strategic thinkers should be good at prioritizing. The worst thing you can do is overwhelm employees with dozens of major changes at the same time and then when things go badly decide that it’s not worth the trouble. Better is to pick the most important changes and implement them at a pace that the organization can handle. Then think through and communicate the timeline, action steps, and resource changes that will happen as the change is rolled out.

Facilitate a Sense of Inevitability. The weakest client outcomes in my career happened when there was uncertainty about whether or not the senior-most executives were on board. A well-meaning strategic planning director that isn’t visibly supported by the executive team will struggle to move an organization forward even if they do everything else right. On the other hand, if the executive team has thoroughly and repeatedly communicated that this change is going to happen with or without you, the inertia of inevitability will convince people to jump on the bandwagon even if other change management mistakes are made.

Identify Strategic Thinking with One Simple Question

Identify Strategic Thinking with One Simple Question

I used to work on a research team for a company that produced an operational risk software product. I always found it interesting how different members of the same team answered an important question: what do you do?

Here is the way Person A and Person B responded:

Person A: We do research on the internet and enter data points into an operational risk database.

Person B: We help banks understand operational risk and how much related capital they were required to reserve by providing an analytical software solution that models operational risk in the global market.

Technically both answers were correct. For the data model to be statistically significant, the product needed a certain number of data points, and our research team’s job was to research and categorize examples of operational loss in order to populate the database and make the model work. And yet, somehow Person A’s answer was always unsatisfying for some people.

It might be tempting to say that Person B was simply exaggerating the importance of their work by describing it in terms of the mission of the product line, but I think that misses an important point about the value of thinking strategically no matter what your position with the organization is. Person A was simply describing our job. Person B was describing how we created value. Different ways of describing our work was actually a window into the strategic thinking style of the team members.

From Daniel Pink to Simon Sinek and others, much has been said and written about how people are more motivated and productive when they understand the larger context for their work. Understanding why they are doing the work is profoundly important for creative professionals to feel a sense of engagement. Helping employees transition from narrowly thinking about what they do to more broadly thinking about what they are trying to accomplish can improve organizational performance in a number of ways.

The good news is that strategic thinking is a teachable skill. In our BSC Certification courses, we begin by teaching the basic semantics of strategy. At first, students mechanically append or replace the “task” language that most are comfortable with (we need to develop a new service by milestone x) with language that reflects a higher level objective (we want to improve the customer experience; the development of a new services is one option for accomplishing that). Over time, mechanical semantics evolve into an instinct for intuitively thinking about the strategic context. As students change the way they think about strategy and action, critical thinking skills improve as well (e.g. if we are trying to improve the customer experience, is a new service really the best way to do it?). The transition for many teams from always focusing on tactics and actions to always starting with the big picture and working down can be quite profound.

For more about how to improve strategic thinking in your organization, see our Balanced Scorecard Certification Program or The Institute Way: Simplify Strategic Planning and Management with the Balanced Scorecard.

Boots on the Ground: Making a Difference in Kuwait

Boots on the Ground: Making a Difference in Kuwait

Dateline: CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait. First, let me acknowledge that for some inexplicable reason, my career has repeatedly veered into Department of Defense work and this little fact is extremely amusing to those who know that my idea of “roughing it” means staying in less than a four-star hotel and, even worse, having to eat with plastic utensils and use paper napkins.  Nonetheless, I and my high heels are frequently found traipsing across military bases.

I was recently on yet another military base and had the opportunity to visit with a former Institute student – a U.S. Army Colonel.  He had deployed to Kuwait just days after attending our Balanced Scorecard Boot Camp course in 2011.  Upon arrival he found that the Army Contracting Command for which he was to be responsible was faced with tremendous challenges – from dealing with perceptions of corruption in the local supply chain to managing the extreme complexities of contracting for all of the products and services needed by the Army in such a challenging location.

This particular command needed a rapid transformation in order to achieve his vision of “being recognized by our customers as the best contracting office in the U.S. Army.”  –  a bold vision considering the challenges that he and his team were facing.

But before his tour of duty had ended, his contracting command had, indeed, received accolades and acknowledgement as being one of the best Army Contracting Commands anywhere in the world.

How did he lead his Command to achieve this vision in such a short time period?  He applied his new knowledge and developed a strategic balanced scorecard.

A few “secrets” to the success of his scorecard implementation should sound familiar to students of The Institute Way:

  • Leadership Engagement: Command & staff meetings utilized statistics on a dashboard tool to provide a snapshot status of where the organization was in accomplishing the strategic plan objectives.
  • Incorporating the “Voice of the Customer”: The team regularly conducted customer satisfaction surveys to obtain feedback in order to sustain or improve the contracting processes within the command.
  • Alignment: The command’s managers embraced the strategic scorecard and used it for employee counseling and to track personnel contributions.

Army Public Affairs subsequently featured the command’s accomplishments – to learn more:  http://www.army.mil/article/71433

To learn more about how to achieve transformational results for your organization or to read more stories of break-through success, we invite you to explore The Institute Way:  Simplify Strategic Planning & Management with the Balanced Scorecard.

Dear Abby-Gail: How Much is Too Much?

Dear Abby-Gail: How Much is Too Much?

There has been a lot of interest in my recent blog post:  “Balanced Scorecard Gone Bad: What’s that Funky Smell?”  Several people have posted comments and questions in various forums, but one in particular deserves special attention.

Dear Abby-Gail: I believe a key point in your message is that a strategy is never static due to external changes (e.g., competitor moves, new technologies), so it will require continuous adjusting.  But this raises a different question. Since as strategic objectives change or the emphasis of what to accomplish within strategic objectives change, this means some KPIs may be dropped and others added (or their weightings may need to be tweaked). As a result, how much change in KPIs can an organization tolerate?

Dear Gary: This is an excellent question.  When strategy changes, then KPIs will have to change. Organizational tolerance to change is affected by several things.

(1) Is the scorecard system engrained in the organizational culture such that management trusts the system and uses it to make decisions?  If so, they will have relatively high tolerance for change in the KPIs because they understand that the change is necessary if they are to continue to rely upon the system to make strategically relevant decisions.

(2) Given that you know you need to adjust the KPI, how quickly can you achieve 7 data points on the new or adjusted KPI?  In other words, is there baseline information available that will help you quickly establish an XmR chart?  If not, can you achieve frequent enough reporting points to have useful trend analysis within 6 months?  If you were using an excellent KPI in the past and then switch to one in which it will be a year (or more) before you have enough data for management to have the 7 data points needed to make statistically sound decisions, this will cause frustration and lower the tolerance for the necessary change.

(3) Can your software system handle these changes without losing your historical performance on the objective (assuming the objective does not change)?  Knowing that you won’t be throwing away historical information increases tolerance for change.

(4) What about rewards tied to KPIs?  How do your Human Resources processes link individual or group performance and incentives to KPI performance?  What will be the result of changing a KPI right now?  If it can’t be changed due to a covenant with employees, can it be removed from the calculation so that you don’t keep working towards an “expired strategy”?

I invite feedback from others.  What else has impacted your organization’s tolerance for needed change in its KPIs?  And does anyone want to share their tips for overcoming resistance to this sort of change?

For more challenges and solutions, we invite you to explore The Institute Way: Simply Strategic Planning & Management with the Balanced Scorecard.

Skinny Jeans and the New Math

Skinny Jeans and the New Math

I am an engineer by training and a math geek at heart.  So articles about girls and math catch my eye.  Did you know that researchers agree that one’s ability to excel at math and science is as much about attitude as it is about “natural gifts” or gender?  This affirms my own less-than-scientific research findings.  I have a daughter and from her earliest years, I showed her how to apply math to everyday activities (baking was our favorite hands-on lesson, of course).  And anytime friends of hers would complain about how hard math was, I’d make them all stand up and shout, “Girls ROCK at math!!!”   It’s all about the attitude.   Of course, I had a good role model for this. My father showed me how fun math was when I was a child as we built motors together and played around with electronics…scribbling equations and schematics as we went.  I never feared math and science…they were FUN!

In my work life, I’ve discovered that dread of math, especially statistics, is widespread in the business community.   So let’s tackle something fun:  the concept of correlation.

When developing performance measures in business, we sometimes face a stumbling block in that the thing we desire most to measure is, unfortunately, impossible to measure directly.  So, we have to look for a “proxy” measure that is correlated.

Let me illustrate with an example from daily life.  Let’s say I want to know if I am maintaining my ideal weight versus gaining weight.  It’s easy to measure that directly – hop on the bathroom scale.  But, unfortunately, I can’t.  I travel constantly so I do not have a bathroom scale with me most days.

So I have a correlate that I measure.  I always carry the same pair of skinny jeans with me.  As long as the jeans will button, I am fairly certain of what the bathroom scale might say, if I had one.  The fit of my jeans is correlated to my weight.   Now, a statistician will remind us that “correlation does not equal causation.”  This simply means is that I need to consider that other things may be causing my jeans not to fit – for example, maybe they shrunk in the wash.  But understanding this, I am reasonably certain that they are a good proxy measure while on the road.

See how easy it was to master two important concepts for measuring performance in business – Direct Measure and Correlated Measure?  It’s all about the attitude!!

To learn much, much more about how to develop meaningful performance measures, we invite you to explore The Institute Way or join us at an upcoming training course.

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