Wha…? Projects? Initiatives? Business Alignment?

Summary: Executive participation is required to make strategy-based initiatives happen successfully, and without it the strategy will be hobbled or blocked completely. In other words, you cannot be a hands off executive if you want to see your strategy succeed.

Something that really caught my attention in the past has been the fast and loose attitudes around the term “initiative”. Overall, across the industry, there is some agreement that it is something like plan and process to implement large, fundamental changes in accordance to some organizational strategy. OK, I get that. There’s also some agreement that “Programs” and “Projects” are the actual planned and funded activities that organize people to make the overall”Initiative” happen. When you look at it that way the Initiative is the “why” and programs & projects are the “how” of the strategy.

Recently I’ve been reading different articles that bring up some very important conditions to make an initiative get done right and make the intended difference. All of them assign #1 priority to one condition, and in my experience if you don’t have it, the initiative simply will not happen. It’s executive sponsorship and active engagement. I added the emphasis on this latter point because I’m saying right here that a “hands off” executive management style almost certainly guarantees failure of the initiative.

Strategic plans affect everyone in the organization, from people steering the ship down to people shoveling the coal. A lot of people may object to this statement. I say to them that they are correct when observing an organization after a successful initiative implementation because you can trace the footsteps of each program and project that spun up and successfully completed, but I will say that it is not true before and during the initiative’s implementation.

Why? Because This initiative is strategic and strategy defines where the organization needs to go, and not how. Therefore there are 2 state components at work in the before and during stages: first, nobody in the org can predict how much their contribution will be needed and second, nobody can predict the internal disruptions and accommodations that will be needed from the damnedest places throughout the org. That means that everybody in the organization needs to be on standby to put work into the efforts. Not just assigned and tracked work that their role owns, but also the troubleshooting and repair of the parts that get broken within their domains when the changes start getting made.

I’ve referenced a phenomenon earlier called the “middle management freeze”. This is where middle managers essentially kill efforts like this because of their interlocking prior commitments to each other and their immediate bosses, and their fear that violating these commitments will result in more pain than violating them in support of the changes that are being proposed or are already starting. The tradeoff between pain of violating the old agreements vs. the pain of not supporting the strategy is the critical and to me, most important factor that drags and kills initiatives. Again, middle management freeze will kill any initiative unless the pain of keeping the status quo exceeds the pain of making the change, for every middle manager in the organization.

We need to look at this positively though and really, we should not be talking about pain when we talk to middle managers about this. Instead we need to talk about the gain and the safety of the middle managers’ careers. Remember, hearts and minds are critical to any activity to truely work in high tech. So lets refactor…

Middle management freeze is the stabilized state of a functional organization. Agreements across a network of structural and personal relationships make it work. Therefore to make change each middle manager node in that network needs to understand, accept and embrace the vision of benefits that will come out of the initiative. When a person understands, accepts and embraces a future state, they will endure hardship in order to help establish that future state. Just like anyone who receives money for their work, middle managers need to feel safe in their careers for them to enthusiastically help their larger org make the change.

What makes these folks feel safe? First and foremost is a knowledge that they and their groups will not be penalized when they are negatively impacted by the changes brought on by programs and projects. They must be given a voice to call out when they are being hit, and accommodated when they make the changes within their groups to change their own services to handle the changes of state around them. In an MBO (“Managed By Objectives”) organization that means that each boss of middle managers needs to change that middle managers objectives so they are graded positively for detecting, alerting, planning and implementing the adjustments, and so that old objectives that are invalidated by the initiative’s changes are removed from the grading of the middle manager.

Which brings us to the second thing that will motivate middle managers; rewards for helping the change happen, rewards for detecting negative results from a change and tell how the change should be adjusted, removed or amplified in support of a better implementation of the initiative, and rewards for successfully carrying out any and every assigned tasks within any of the projects that spin up.

The third thing that they must have to feel safe is the demonstrable knowledge that they will receive the necessary resources to make the changes in their groups permanent. Piling on more and more work will only result in blockage or worse, loss of valuable people. Any group should be expected to handle temporary bursts of work and temporary shortages of resource, but never, never permanent!

How does an executive participate then, when her time is so tight? Well, I’m not suggesting that execs drop everything and get all tactical on us. That would be impractical as well as insulting. I am suggesting that an Exec (any CXO level person) do these things to ensure that IT initiatives are carried out –

  • Make sure that your company strategy includes specific and aligned Initiatives that will change the IT infrastructure
  • Actively involve the CXO who runs the IT org in defining this
  • Make sure that you are up to date on every Program and Project that spins up from each Initiative
  • For each Initiative do an all-hands where YOU tell the staff how the Initiative aligns with company strategy and how each program supports the Initiative. You should also tell non-tech staff how they may be involved. Specifically all contract and financial people need to be put on alert in this meeting. They can kill the work if they are not on board. Same with any business process groups. Do this whether or not you are certain that they’ll be affected or involved. A company strategy needs to be understood by all.
  • Then do all hands quarterly to track progress, inform about changes, etc.
  • Get your HR department in line with helping your management construct relevant and meaningful evaluation criteria that supports the initiative. Make sure that they get your entire management tree on board, fully aware and supportive of the changes to how they set their reports’ objectives and how those objectives support the company strategy. Every employee, full time or contract should be able to tell you how they are supporting your strategy.
  • In each quarterly all-hands make sure there are several meaningful, relevant rewards to individuals and teams who are particularly successful at making their objectives supporting the initiative. Make sure it is not all “heros” because too many heros can screw up the progress and permanence of the initiative. Reward the quiet, steady progress people too, and the process people who never see the end of their work.
  • Make sure your CFO reviews each of the Initiative’s Programs and Projects for costs, interim financial performance metrics, and progress. Make sure they align those Programs, their pace and scope with your financial strategy. Do this at the CFO level.
  • Make sure that you and your exec team regularly and carefully examine the pace and resource loads or the work. Make sure that no group or their teams are over or under loaded. Redistribute loads where possible and adjust pace if there are insurmountable bottlenecks in the change capacity of any of these groups or teams. Do not steadily overwork your employees.
  • Build a clear and safe set of communication channels between you and 2 levels up and 2 levels down in the management structure to deal with the day to day work on the initiative
  • Build an anonymous bottom-to-top communications channel to you, so that anybody feels safe about whstle-blowing.
  • Deal with blown whistles as an opportunity to fix and refresh your initiative, and only invoke punishment on ethical breaks

Remember, Initiatives are part of your strategy and they will not run by itself. Your people need to see that you care.

Afterword –

I started writing this in 2014, while I was working in the heart of a certain huge online travel company’s IT Infrastructure group. I was writing in reaction to a tenancy of execs in that company to push their own initiatives all over the place without taking the time and effort to get agreement if not consensus from all the other execs who might have been affected by those initiatives. As a result the whole place was in a gridlock of shitshows. It was the most stressful and unrewarding work I’ve ever had, short of the grunt-work jobs I had before going back to college in the late 70s.

This is where i saw the term “Initiative” used to describe a simple, tactical effort to design & initiative a new IT infrastructure service. It dawned on me that this was patently false and confusing. Unfortunately my boss insisted on using that term and it balled the whole Infrastructure Group around the axles for 2 years until that definition got eroded out of existence.

…and here are a bunch of articles on corporate fear cycles that I’d read at the time I started this post:

  • Monthly SeaSPIN Meeting — November 4, 2014. – This talk pointed me to this line of thinking. The presenter Arlo Belshee, was focusing on how fear impedes successful agile transformation in dev teams, but in that talk he exposed me to the first articulation of the primary cause of “middle manager freeze”. Well done Arlo!!!
  • A Project by Any Other Name – A good article on the Projects At Work site. To read it in full you’ll need to sign up for a membership though. You’ll need an account to see this, but they’re free.
  • Chaos Manifesto 2013 (downloads a PDF file) – One of the many citations that plainly state the importance of not just executive sponsorship but also a level of executive involvement and participation.