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Overwhelmed and Underachieving? Consider using Strategic Initiatives

Posted December 7, 2010 11:48 AM by Dylan Miyake

Typically, organizations can identify hundreds of projects that "need" to be completed. Most of these projects address a problem, usually someone feels burdened to implement them, but oftentimes the leadership team has not identified, defined, or actively managed those projects for maximum strategic impact.

Without discipline from the top, hundreds of projects continue to go unfinished and over budget without any real impact on the organization's mission.

Perhaps it's time to try a new approach.

What are Strategic Initiatives?

Strategic initiatives are key action programs focused on achieving a specific objective or closing a gap between a measure's performance and its target. They provide organization leadership with a framework to review all the current projects, define the expected impact on the mission, and then focus on those few key projects that will cause immediate and measurable changes in how the organization functions. Strategic Initiatives are not "business as usual," they are the few critical projects key to improving an organization's delivery on its mission.

Defining and Prioritizing Strategic Initiatives

First you have to define the need: Why prioritize initiatives? You need to narrow the list of activities that the leadership team focuses on to the few things that will truly drive the execution of the strategy. The Strategic Initiative selection process begins by collecting a complete list of projects. All relevant information such as project budgets, expected benefits, risks, and owners or project managers should also be collected. Once this list is complete, leadership is ready to begin the review.

Each project should be plotted against the organization's Strategic Objectives. Add a mark for each Strategic Objective that the project will positively impact. See Figure 1 for an example.

Analyze this chart and begin prioritizing each project as High, Medium, or Low strategic impact.

Thinking about Alignment

Projects without strategic impact on any objectives are not good candidates to become Strategic Initiatives. Instead, these low-impact projects should be considered for cancellation.

In the same manner, if a Strategic Objective does not have any current projects supporting it, leadership should consider assigning new projects to support the Strategic Objective, or re-evaluate whether the objective is being sufficiently defined and delivered upon.

Selection and Implementation

Strategic Initiatives are like the U.S. Marines – "the few, the proud." The leadership team should be paring down the list to a select, high-priority group of Strategic Initiatives that will stand out against the noise of operational and day-to-day projects.

For example, some people within the organization might consider routine capital expenditures for preventive maintenance to be a project, but this is a task that does not have to be discussed and managed at the executive level, and it will typically not drive a change in performance of strategic measures. Strategic Initiatives need to be limited to only those efforts that have the potential for significant strategic impact on the overall organization.

Routine operations and low-impact projects are about "doing things right." Strategic Initiatives are about "doing the right things" that will make a big difference for the long-term strategic position of the organization.

Ideally, by the end of the selection process, the original list of many projects has been narrowed down to 8-15 Strategic Initiatives. Each of the initiatives now has a defined outcome directly related to the Mission and Strategic Objectives. Additionally, each Strategic Initiative also has an enthusiastic Owner who is responsible for drafting a budget and key milestones and then presenting this plan to the leadership team for approval.

Through the process of prioritization, the leadership team should be building consensus and understanding about how organizational resources will be best allocated in achieving Mission-Driven Success. There should be a major reduction in non-strategic projects, instead shifting to an alignment of effort behind these few key Strategic Initiatives. The entire organization, including leaders and those on the front line, should feel less stretched and more supported in completing the projects that will directly drive up performance measures.

Strategic Initiatives are not about "doing more with less," they're about helping your entire organization focus on doing the most important work, and setting aside lower-priority distractions.

Tracking Tools

Milestones are a key project management tool to use with Strategic Initiatives, serving as points in time when major tasks begin or end. The Initiative Owner is responsible for ensuring major milestones are completed on schedule and on budget, and should also keep the leadership team up to date on progress.

Leadership does not usually need to know about minor milestones, but they should be updated whenever a major milestone is falling behind schedule or needs more resources.

For projects with multiple milestones in planning, start-up, delivery, and completion; an Initiative Owner may consider using a simple Gantt chart to communicate with the Leadership team. Gantt charts model the progression of a project by individual tasks over time and can help a leadership team better understand a plan's progress in relation to other plans. See the image below for reference.

Follow Through

Leaders need to take responsibility for initiatives and milestones. Like your objectives and measures, you should report on the progress of completing your initiatives each month or quarter when you report on your Balanced Scorecard. Several things can cause red flags to go up with initiatives: you may be behind schedule, you may lack the resources, or you may be over budget.

Like objectives, you should flag initiatives as red, yellow, or green and come up with a plan to correct the initiative. Maybe the strategy has changed or it has become less important to complete the initiative within the given environment. Regardless, you need to report what you learn and demonstrate its impact on the execution of the strategy.

Successfully executing on your initiatives will increase your measures improving significantly over time. A disciplined focus on your key strategic initiatives will help your organization avoid distractions, eliminate wasted effort, and get results on the objectives that matter most.