We all have good ideas. The hard part is making them happen.
HR departments love handing out worksheets on how to plan your time. Management gurus have written hundreds of pages of advice on how to better manage your week, your day, and your hour.
But what happens when you try and apply that advice to your team or organization? How do you deliver complex, multi-level, multi-year programs of work across teams and business units that may be, quite honestly, in chaos?
I sat down with three senior executives leading major projects at complex, fast-moving organizations and asked them what they do to be effective. They had all worked across multiple industries in their careers, run successful projects (and also some that had failed), and extracted lessons that made sense at every organizational level.
Here are the three tips they said had the biggest impact:
Be strategic, not tactical. The biggest mistake most managers make is that they spend their days and nights focusing on tactics when they really need to think about strategy. Tactics are important. They relate to the details, the fine-grain specifics to execute against a tight deadline. But strategy asks whether the milestones being created are the right ones. In the case of one media business, teams were overweight with technical project managers and lacked strategic thinkers who could prioritise what mattered. The results were hundreds of milestones that related to product launches without an overall picture of which products were the most important to customers. Strategy is all about making trade-offs. In a world where you can’t do everything, what are the one or two things you really need to focus on?
Talk about the red. In most organizations, managers spent their time sitting in steering committees hearing about how great things are going. That’s a waste of time. Talking about “red” is nearly always a more useful conversation than talking about “green”. In one government department I talked with, senior executives realized this meant changing the culture around failure. People were so afraid about losing their job that they weren’t able to do their job properly. When senior leadership started normalizing failure, employees felt more comfortable flagging when things were going off track –and working out how to fix them. Let’s be clear: it can be pretty demoralizing talking about failure all the time. Senior leaders need to know how to thank people who use their time well, and focus on the things that matter –especially the bad news.
Have leading, not lagging, indicators. Red is good. But amber is much better. Many managers aren’t able to tell their bosses if a project is off target, over budget, or past schedule until it has actually happened. Far more useful is to have lead indicators. These are triggers built into project plans so that managers have foresight into what’s going wrong as it’s happening. The key thing here is to focus on goals that really matter. If budget savings are what you care about, create lead indicators that phase in incremental savings. If being on schedule is the highest priority, create lead indicators that focus on completion to deadlines. In a cost-savings program in a major mining company, one manager built an intricate plan that culminated in big-buck savings in the final milestone. That’s no good. Much better is to break this final milestone into mini steps. Building good lead indicators means thinking about what really matters and giving that issue sufficient visibility.
We all want to be effective in our organizations. But ask yourself: are your current tools working? Following these three principles is a good step towards turning good ideas to great execution.