by Pamela S. Harper
Today’s roller coaster business climate is filled with enough twists and turns to make some amusement park rides look tame. As a result, companies in nearly every sector mirror this state of affairs, launching a variety of strategies and initiatives in order to respond to the economy’s highs and lows. They may take simultaneous actions like laying off hundreds of workers while they outsource non-core functions and hire hundreds of others with different skills to start up a new product line. Or, they may concurrently undertake a management reorganization while doing a push for quality improvement. These and other rapid shifts in direction often leave companies spinning in circles.
While every leader needs to be flexible in order to move their businesses forward, often even the best strategies or initiatives can throw your organization for a loop if they’re planned in a vacuum and executed in a way that clashes with an organization’s unique and multi-faceted reality. When this occurs, persistent problems pile up and can grind progress to a halt, in what I call “strategic gridlock.” Minimizing this situation starts with systematically thinking through and planning strategies and initiatives in a way that takes into account your organization’s current circumstances, capability, willingness and relationships.
Before you commit your company to a plan of action in response to a business challenge, here are key questions that you need to ask in order to determine whether a particular strategy or initiative that should work actually will work for your organization:
- How well does the strategy or initiative advance the company’s business objectives, relative to competing strategies and initiatives?
In some cases, gridlock builds because an organization tries to absorb a large number of “equally” important goals. At these times, even the most rational and well- sequenced plans stall as all of the priorities blur together. One of the best ways to break these jams is to review each alternative against your company’s vision, mission, and business objectives. This can help you select the few key strategies and initiatives that offer the best blend of short and long term benefits along with the fewest acceptable risks.
- How complementary is the goal with others?
In other cases, gridlock builds because organizations adopt plans that pull everyone in different directions. One way to resolve this conflict is to run goals in parallel that use different resources, or by “piggybacking” goals that can take advantage of the same infrastructure. For instance, one company designed a new manufacturing facility that was capable of making multiple product lines, which made it easier for them to enter into multiple new markets at once.
- What other strategies / initiatives / goals compete for the same resources?
One of the most difficult things for leadership teams to anticipate is how seemingly different strategies or initiatives can tie up the same resources. This is because conflicts often happen far down the road and can’t always be seen from the executive suite. One way to better anticipate and plan around such gridlock is to leverage any insights you can gain from conversations with those who will be implementing a plan. This includes (but is not limited to) employees, alliance partners and outsource providers. Since many of them are much closer to the action, they can become excellent sources of intelligence about resource conflicts as well as other matters.
- What politics are involved?
These days, our decisions impact and are impacted by more than employees on the payroll. Organizations of all sizes have structures, alliances, supply, and outsource relationships that make them increasingly fluid and interwoven. Because of this, keep in mind that overlooked or underestimated stakeholders (such as regulatory agencies), who suddenly flex their political muscle, can also advance or block our strategies and initiatives. Using your insights about the power various stakeholder groups have in relationship to the plan that you’re considering can help you anticipate this and plan accordingly when choosing priorities.
- What trade-offs make sense?
Sometimes organizations run into gridlock because leaders focus purely on the strategic fit of an opportunity and underestimate their organization’s current capability and willingness to execute the plan. Testing your assumptions about your organization’s reality along with fact-finding efforts can help you decide what to advance and what to hold back when your organization can’t effectively manage everything at once. In some cases, the trade-off may be timing; in other scenarios, short-term profits or product launches that initially seemed to be good opportunities are better off being placed on hold in favor of plans that offer a higher long-term payout. The better you understand your organization’s reality regarding these issues, the easier it will be to make these decisions.
Keep Your Organization Moving Forward
As the business environment continues to evolve, no organization can sustain long-term growth without shifts in direction along the way. To maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of encountering strategic gridlock, it’s vital to systematically think through your execution plans in a way that incorporates these often overlooked or underestimated issues of your organization’s reality. By doing so, you can balance what should work with what will work to accelerate your company’s progress despite the economic terrain.
Pamela S. Harper is president of Business Advancement Inc. She is an internationally known business performance expert, professional speaker, and author of the critically acclaimed bookPreventing Strategic Gridlock®: Leading Over, Under & Around Organizational Jams to Achieve High Performance Results (Cameo Publications, 2003)
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