Appropriate Ambition - Undeliverable Strategy Is Useless

Undeliverable strategy is useless. Too ambitious and you run out fuel before the race is run; not ambitious enough and the race may not be won. Success requires ambition to be rooted in reality.

This is the second in our series of blogs exploring the five key aspects of alignment that are essential to turn strategy into action. Having first outlined the need for balance, we now consider the need for appropriate ambition.

Transformations are fuelled by ambition. Too little ambition dampens enthusiasm and reduces momentum. Overstretch, and failure beckons. Be bold, but realistic and pragmatic, in how you approach transformation.

Be realistic

Setting ambitious, audacious goals is part of the role of a leader. However, it is a common complaint from staff in organisations struggling to transform, that the ambition is either too nebulous and open to interpretation, or over-specified and over-promised.

As well as being ambitious, transformation goals have to be rooted in the reality of the current organisation. This means describing change in ways that are meaningful to operational teams, with clarity on what new capability needs to be delivered in order to enable ambition to be realised. It also means not stretching too far, too quickly. At Project One we become involved with many organisations in unnecessary distress, struggling with a self-imposed burden of excess ambition.

With the right clarity and balance, everyone can understand how they can contribute. It also enables self-regulation that only necessary things are being done and that they are being done well (and not over-engineered). In our experience, change portfolios are often cluttered with some change that is either superfluous or of little value. When programmes are over-running over-engineering or poor specification of requirements are often to be found somewhere back upstream.

Be pragmatic

It is not just in setting the degree of change where care is required, care is also required when deciding on the proposed pace for change. There’s a big difference between a twenty metre climb spread over a kilometre, and the same climb with only a single metre horizontal. Trying to do things too fast and either compromising quality, or taking too much out of people, inevitably leads to significant problems later.

A transformation that fails because it is overloaded does not usually stop gracefully, it is often catastrophic. Therefore, rather than try to do everything, be very clear about the 80% that matters most. Put your effort into that, rather than failing miserably at everything. With each element of change, be clear on the same ‘80/20’ principle. As one of my colleagues often intones, ‘don’t let perfect get in the way of good enough’. Good portfolio management allows the tempo to be increased as capacity becomes free or when momentum increases: it also allows burden to be reduced if the going gets tough.

In addition to a manageable change load, a pragmatic plan is needed that ideally builds in transition states, where value-adding and sustainable modules of capability have been delivered. If necessary, should ‘business as usual’ needs dictate a change in direction and priority, the transformation can then be paused. It can even be stopped, without sacrificing all potential benefit.

Structure the plan

The plan should also, ideally, be structured to build confidence. Often there is a logical sequence to delivery, but early wins help develop momentum and a degree of swagger in programme teams.

Tell-tale signs that a transformation is overstretching an organisation are:

• too many things occurring within a portfolio, and a general lack of clarity on progress, interdependency and/or priority;
• a lack of clarity regarding the contribution to the future business, or the rationale for the activity;
• too much complexity across the portfolio, with seemingly simple issues rippling across activities, causing disproportionate disruption to delivery and plans across the portfolio;
• too much stop/start in activities, and business cases deteriorating quickly as benefits fade and costs rise.

Ambition for transformation has to be bold and beyond the ordinary. However, if that ambition is not rooted in the realities of what can actually be achieved, with pragmatic ways to achieve it, disheartening setbacks will follow. This will lead to the very possible consequence of failure to deliver any meaningful transformation at all.

At Project One, we help many clients whose ambition has got beyond their ability to deliver. They usually assume they can do better than past change performance, or they are not well-organised and aligned. Is your ambition stretching, and rooted in your real ability to deliver? Ideally we can help you before you start, working with you to get the balance right. Even if you are buckling, we can still help you avoid a catastrophic collapse. If you’re not sure, talk to us.

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