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Staying the Course When the Going Gets Tough

Insights From Kevin Cullen | June 30, 2018 

Did you know that 70% of strategic initiatives in companies fail? Why is this? Research from studies point to four key contributing factors. The first is that people in the company don’t really know the vision and are not aligned with where the company needs to go. Second, they don’t know their specific role in delivering on what the company is trying to accomplish. Third, they don’t have a clear transparent score card that is kept up-to-date, accurate, complete and in use and fourth, people are not being held accountable. In studying project management effectiveness, we have found that when those four components are solidly in place the likelihood of success goes up dramatically. More importantly, what we’ve discovered with the initiatives that fail is it’s not that they’re missing a strong and believable plan, it’s that they didn’t build those four components into the design of the plan.    

Additionally, we often find that project teams start with a plan but don’t stay committed to the plan. Worse yet, if the project goes off course even slightly, they might just abandon the plan because they don’t trust the process and the thinking that went into it. This is a fatal error and a rookie mistake. Teams have to believe in their plan.

Sticking to the plan takes courage and discipline because it’s human nature to doubt and to want to change the plan when something unexpected comes along ~ which it almost always does. More and more today we have a strong need for immediate gratification. We want to see almost instant success and when we don’t get it, it triggers uncertainty and doubt, so we question the plan. Successful project execution requires managers and teams to trust the plan and to follow the steps in the plan. That means taking the next step in the plan, and the next step, and the next step.  That is not to say that there isn’t room to make adjustments. General Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Only a fool goes into battle without a plan. But only an idiot follows the plan once the battle begins.” While you have to be able to make the right adjustments that all happens inside staying the course of your original approach.

Nick Saban, Head Coach at the University of Alabama since 2007 and the most dominant head coach in the country calls his plans on the field “The Process”. And, for Saban “The Process” is all there is to winning and the way winning is accomplished. Sometimes you start executing the plan and something happens. Then suddenly people abandon the plan. People stop trusting the plan and stop trusting the process. They call an audible as a reaction to what they’re seeing in front of them. Saban’s success can be attributed to staying the course and trusting the process. It almost doesn’t matter what you see at the line of scrimmage. He tells his players:

Ignore the scoreboard. Don’t worry about winning. Just focus on doing your job at the highest level every single play and the wins will follow.

He shows the player exactly how to do the move. He never sells out. When you believe in setting the right values and believe in your strategy one of the hardest things to do is to stick with it in the face of circumstances in the foreground that are not what you want or expect. Staying the course when the going gets tough takes courage.   

That 70% of failed initiatives are a function of abandoning the plan. The value is in sticking to the plan. Believe in yourself. Believe in the plan. Know in your gut that the plan is right and see it through to fulfillment. In organizations that give up on plans, and change mid-stream, a culture of not trusting occurs. People become disempowered. People think that management is presenting the “flavor of the month” and think “this too shall pass”. It leaves a culture of people second guessing themselves and quitting on the design and plans. People sell out easily in that scenario. There is enormous value in sticking with the plan.  Focus on staying the course ~ that’s what has people win.

Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.

Kevin Cullen: kcullen@leaderacg.com, cc: acook@leaderacg.com

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Collaboration

Hierarchy of Needs

American psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow (1908 – 1970) is considered the father of humanistic psychology and is known for his theory that that there is a “hierarchy of human needs” that determines human motivation. The first in this
hierarchy of our needs Maslow called “animal survival needs” (food, water, reproduction, shelter, instinctual behavior). As each set of needs is met, we progress toward the next level, which, in turn, allows us to pursue and fulfill a whole new set of human needs. According to Maslow, as we satisfy these needs, we pass through a series of five levels that both expand in complexity and broaden our perspective and ability to make an impact in life. While this progression takes place, we increase our awareness, our attention and our focus to a larger set of concerns. This progression culminates with “self actualization”- becoming the best of who we are meant to be as the highest level.

As you can see from the following diagram, the highest levels are about being more outwardly directed. In the fourth and fifth levels, we begin to turn our attention outward toward others, as opposed to focusing on our own needs as was required and appropriate in the early levels. The two highest levels allow us to look out into the world and imagine how we might make the world a better place to be. My experience tells me that people want to make a difference more than anything else. When they find themselves in a position to contribute, they will strive to do so. Most people will go to great lengths to contribute to a worthwhile cause if they know that they can succeed and, therefore, matter.

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Breakdowns: The Path to Producing Breakthroughs

Shaping the future

Have you ever wondered what the early, great American inventors were like to be around? What possessed them to continue to persevere and endure? Or what it took to achieve victory in their fields of discovery and invention? Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford; each of them achieved something remarkable and broke through into a new paradigm in their own respective fields. Their inventions created new technology and generated entire pioneering industries. We call what each of these men did in their lives a BREAKTHROUGH.

Thomas Edison is, of course, remembered for the remarkable invention of the electric light bulb. Invariably, when the topic of Edison is raised, what predictably follows is the story about his 10,000 failed experiments, making the point that greatness takes a bit of patience. Edison had abounding patience and understood that great result required hard work. He has been widely quoted as once saying:

“Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.”

What he was referring to is that great accomplishments are not just a function of the conception of a great idea, but rather of dedicated perseverance and staying the course. In Edison’s case, one might say that he was fully aware that producing remarkable results takes substantial hard work, a bit of luck, and the ability to deal with setbacks effectively.

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Chartering a Breakthrough

Chartering a Breakthrough

Move through a large organization, and you will likely find many dedicated people who are working hard on company priorities that are designed to add value, grow the business or innovate. These organizations are targeting big things, yet individuals and teams can find themselves stalled in their quest for accomplishing the extraordinary. So often, when our firm is invited in to work with such companies, we hear people say, “We have a history of lots of take-offs, but we have very few landings.” What this statement means is that a lot of projects get started, but few of them really deliver their intended results. Targeting, executing and delivering Breakthrough results are highly valued skills. It is not unusual for us to be invited to work in areas where there are both big opportunities and an insufficient structure in place to capture these gains.

We most often address this dilemma by suggesting that whatever extraordinary results an organization is committed to producing will require imaginative, breakthrough thinking in the company. A powerful way to trigger the imagination and stimulate breakthrough thinking is to write a charter. We assert that any project that is attempting to accomplish the unlikely or unpredictable needs a charter.

A charter is a written document that serves as a performance contract for a designated project or intended set of work objectives. However, it is a performance contract that targets unprecedented results. Our firm has found that when a charter is written well, launched powerfully, and managed with integrity, extraordinary results will be achieved.

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Context: A Short Conversation

What is Context?

People often ask us why we focus so much on context and why we put such a premium on the discussion about context in our approach to organizational transformation. We have discovered that no other single area of focus seems to have the kind of impact and leverage in an organization that context has. Understanding what context is and, most importantly, being clear about how context works can empower senior leaders to make an extraordinary difference in their transformation effort.

Let’s start with the dictionary definition of context:

Context: The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.

Context comes from Middle English words meaning “together” plus “to weave.”

So you see, context is everything that surrounds a particular subject. Not only is context in the background, it is the background. It is the place from which people think. Context has the power to shape what we think and what we know. It is only when we are aware of the context for a specific situation, can that situation – in the dictionary’s terms – “be fully understood.”

Context is a word that isn’t immediately clear to organizational leaders when they first hear it.

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