Organisations the world over – from public and private businesses to non-profits and government agencies – are now grappling with the effects of disruptive technologies. According to recent research from the Project Management Institute (PMI), 91 percent of organisations are feeling the impact. Meanwhile, those few that aren’t currently experiencing the effects are still preparing for disruptive technologies to change their business in the coming years.
The importance of active and visible leadership can’t be overstated
“Our research reports that organisations are investing in and expanding their capabilities in cloud computing, the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence, among other technologies,” said Cindy Anderson, Vice President of Brand Management at PMI. PMI leads Brightline Initiative, a coalition that creates resources to assist executives in bridging the gap between strategy design and delivery. “Organisations don’t have to be hi-tech or digital to recognise that they can effectively leverage disruptive technologies to give them a competitive advantage, like improving the customer experience, enhancing efficiency and shortening project timelines.”
A great example of this is Caterpillar, the world’s leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, diesel and natural gas engines, industrial gas turbines, and diesel-electric locomotives. At present, the company is using self-driving, autonomous machines in mining operations in Australia in a bid to reinvent itself, going from a maker of heavy machinery to an IoT-connected company. Another example is TD Bank, which is working with other banks in Canada to develop an identity verification service using blockchain in order to stave off disruption from fintech companies.
While these organisations are disrupting from within, others are being disrupted by external forces. In fact, a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that 56 percent of CEOs expect disruption to come from outside the organisation. “We think of Amazon as the disruptor-in-chief,” said Anderson. “Whether it’s in the grocery industry, with its purchase of Whole Foods Market, or the pharmacy industry, with its recent acquisition of PillPack, Amazon shows how overwhelming and far-reaching disruption can be – and how unlikely the source may be, too.”
It’s important to acknowledge that strategy delivery is just as critical as strategy design
This wave of disruption – whether external or self-imposed – calls for organisations to assess their business models, design new strategies, leverage new technologies and rely on the successful implementation of the projects that will drive the needed change. It also shines a harsh light on the gap between strategy design and strategy implementation. Essentially, even though forward-thinking organisations recognise that disruptive technologies can help them gain a competitive advantage, many of them still struggle to implement the strategies at the scope and speed the market demands.
This correlates with a recent Brightline Initiative study conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which reported that 59 percent of senior executives admitted their organisations struggle to bridge the strategy-implementation gap. The research also showed that only one in 10 organisations is effectively achieving its strategic goals. “Turning ideas into reality is no easy feat,” Anderson told World Finance. “As we’ve conducted research and spoken to leaders in a variety of industries, we hear persistent concerns about an organisation’s inability to close the gap between strategy design and delivery.”
There are numerous reasons for this chasm (see Fig 1). Indeed, Anderson acknowledged that one is a failure to recognise that strategy is delivered through projects and programmes. This then leads to the absence of accountability and a persistent disconnect between those who design strategy and those who implement it. “Too often, senior leadership see themselves as responsible only for the vision,” she explained. “They think that delivery is a tactical problem and don’t give it the attention it needs and deserves.”
The costs associated with the strategy implementation gap are enormous, and aren’t measured solely in financial terms. PMI research shows that every 20 seconds, $1m is wasted globally due to the poor implementation of strategy, which amounts to almost $5bn wasted every day, or $2trn a year – approximately the same size as Brazil’s GDP. “These aren’t losses merely in profit and revenues,” Anderson pointed out. “This also results in the destruction of the value that these organisations could be providing to society at large.”
Fortunately, not all organisations struggle: there are various organisations that have proved themselves effective in delivering the strategies they have designed. Research conducted by Brightline has identified three common characteristics among them. One that is they ensure that strategy design and delivery are deeply interconnected: instead of a linear two-step process, they maintain continuous interaction between the team that creates a strategic plan and the team that carries it out.
Second, they understand that the effective delivery of strategy requires looking beyond the walls of their organisation. They don’t just monitor what happens in the market – they provide such insights to the decision-makers who can quickly adjust strategy and implementation in response. Finally, these organisations find a balance between short-term responsiveness and long-term vision. Leading companies create a dynamic system for delivering strategy, moving quickly to adjust their approach based on changing opportunities and risks, all while keeping the larger goal in sight.
In light of these findings, a group of experts, practitioners and researchers supported by the Brightline team developed the 10 Guiding Principles to help more organisations shrink the gap between strategy design and delivery. “If we can close that gap, organisations will save money and stop destroying economic value, and instead focus on creating additional value,” said Anderson. “The Brightline principles have universal applicability: they address specific actions that organisations and their leaders can take regarding strategy design and implementation.”
First, Anderson explained, it’s important to acknowledge that strategy delivery is just as critical as strategy design. “Strategy delivery doesn’t just happen automatically once it is designed,” she told World Finance. “It is an essential part of a senior executive’s role to ensure that his or her organisation has the programme delivery capability needed to implement that strategy.”
of organisations are feeling the impact of disruptive technology
of CEOs expect disruption to come from outside a company
of senior executives say their organisations struggle to implement strategy
of executives say they face challenges when trying to create a culture of change
of executives say employees see change as a threat to their jobs
If an organisation invests substantial resources, creative time and energy in designing the right strategy, it makes sense to give equal priority and attention to delivering it. The importance of active and visible leadership can’t be overstated. Anderson added: “Even if you’re tired of talking and thinking about the strategy before the rest of the organisation is ready to implement it, bear in mind that if you don’t demonstrate the appropriate level of interest, no one else will.”
Next, it’s necessary for project players to accept that they are accountable for delivering the strategy they designed. Once the strategy has been defined and clearly communicated, responsibility shifts to overseeing the progress of implementation so that the strategy delivers results and achieves its goals. The responsibility applies to the entire senior team, Anderson explained, because the orchestration required to succeed in today’s business environment is highly complex.
Accountability means knowing where change happens in the organisation and who manages the programmes that drive the change. This includes proactively addressing emerging gaps and challenges that may impact delivery. “Never underestimate the power of entropy,” Anderson said.
Brightline’s third principle involves the dedication and mobilisation of the right resources. According to Anderson, there needs to be an active balance between running the business and changing the business, which are both achieved by selecting and securing the right resources for each. The specific skills needed are often different. Team leadership skills are at a premium, so the best leaders should be assigned to the most important projects.
“A critical part of mobilising resources is not just assigning them, but inspiring them,” said Anderson. Therefore, organisations need to ensure that both senior leaders and employees are committed if they want big-change projects to take root. Visible backing and action from the most influential senior leaders and their direct reports are vital to inspiring a buy-in from those on the front lines. Late or inconsistent communication with staff can alienate the people most affected by change, so senior leaders should communicate with staff early and often.
Anderson continued: “Of course, before you can dedicate and mobilise resources, it’s essential to know what resources you have.” She also pointed out that NASA, which deals with change and complex issues on a regular basis, assesses its talent pool based on both current and anticipated needs, and keeps track of who possesses which skill sets. Adopting this tactic can help senior leaders understand if they have the right resources as needed, or if additional resources will be required when change is implemented.
Leveraging insight from customers and competitors is another key strategy; continuously monitoring customer needs, collecting competitor analysis and tracking the market landscape are all critical. Brightline research shows that top organisations adopt feedback loops in which information from customers and competitors can be acted upon. “Advantage in the market flows to those who excel at gaining new insights from an ever-changing business environment and quickly respond with the right decisions and adjustments to both strategy design and delivery,” noted Anderson. “Too often, companies forget to look from the outside in. It’s not easy to do, but it’s essential for the kind of change that leads to growth.”
Being bold, staying focused and keeping things as simple as possible is crucial
In the absence of these practices, many strategic initiatives fail because leaders have become so passionate about an idea that they lose sight of how the market is evolving. Strategy may be delivered, but the result could be something that the market no longer wants or needs.
Being bold, staying focused and keeping things as simple as possible is crucial, because many of the delivery challenges will be complex and interdependent. As Anderson explained, it is important to remain nimble by making sure there are enough simplifiers, rather than complicators. “Simplifiers are those people who can get to the core of an opportunity or threat, understand the drivers, deliver the information and take the action that keeps the strategy moving forward,” she told World Finance. This approach minimises bureaucracy and instead allows for the exploration of ideas, taking appropriate risks, prioritising work, ensuring accountability and focusing on delivering value.
Amount wasted globally every 20 seconds due to poor strategy implementation
Amount wasted globally every day due to poor strategy implementation
Amount wasted globally every year due to poor strategy implementation
After this comes the principle of promoting team engagement and effective cross-business cooperation. “Beware of the frozen middle,” Anderson said. “Senior leadership needs to gain genuine buy-in from middle and line managers – the people who run the business – by engaging, activating and empowering them as strategy champions.” It’s a common mistake for senior leadership to rely too heavily on traditional managers and supervisors, who might be given responsibility or assumed to be playing a certain role only because of their title, rather than sharing and dividing responsibility between those who are respected by their peers for other reasons.
When necessary, teams can break down silos, add diversity to the creative process and generate responsiveness that creates more value than what individuals could create on their own. Care must be taken to craft teams – whether from internal or external talent pools – with the right mix of capabilities and skill sets, while the conditions that allow people to work collectively as well as individually must be explicitly set. “Where appropriate, give the right individuals the authority to make decisions and drive execution on their own,” Anderson told World Finance.
In establishing a shared commitment to strategy delivery priorities and regularly reinforcing that commitment, there is no room for subtlety. What’s more, governing through transparency can engender trust and enhance cross-business cooperation in delivery. “The highest-performing organisations don’t have silos separating those who design strategy from those who carry it out,” Anderson said. “On the contrary, they collaborate very closely together.”
Demonstrating bias towards decision-making and owning the decisions made are both crucial. Making decisions isn’t enough; follow-through is needed all the way to delivery. One way to do this is to build a lean and powerful governance structure to reinforce accountability, ownership and a bias towards action, based upon pre-agreed metrics and milestones. “That means committing to making strategic decisions rapidly, moving quickly to course correct, reprioritising and removing roadblocks,” said Anderson.
It’s likely that leaders will not have all the information they would like, which means they have to rely on others to deliver reliable input. In turn, this will enable them to make thoughtful decisions. During this process, risks and interdependencies must be considered and addressed explicitly – both upfront and regularly throughout delivery. When leaders act fast and with discipline, they encourage prompt and effective reallocations of funding and personnel among strategic initiatives, as well as rapid adjustment when implementation reveals new risks and opportunities.
Number eight of Brightline’s Guiding Principles is to check ongoing initiatives before committing to new ones: it’s critical that senior leadership resists the temptation of declaring victory too soon. “Change fatigue affects even the most senior and seasoned executives,” Anderson explained, noting that with the right governance, leadership, rigour and reporting capabilities in place, regular evaluation of the organisation’s project portfolio can help maintain focus and discipline.
Implementing new initiatives in response to fresh opportunities should only occur when there is a clear understanding of the existing portfolio and the organisation’s capacity to deliver change, together with the assurance that those initiatives are aligned with the strategy. Any issues that are discovered must be actively addressed. In the long term, strategic initiative management discipline – which is critical for the effective orchestration of a dynamic initiative portfolio – will only work if robust assessment, support and course correction are all in place.
Another principle Anderson explained involves the development of robust plans while also allowing for missteps to occur – essentially, failing fast to learn fast. “Learn to reward failure, or at least accept it as valuable input,” she added. In today’s business environment, strategy planning cycles need to be more nimble than ever. This means empowering programme delivery teams to learn in an environment where it is safe to experiment with products and processes that might better meet customers’ needs. “If what you’re working on doesn’t meet your customers’ needs, which means it doesn’t meet your strategic needs, stop doing it, learn from it and move on to the next thing.”
According to Anderson, one organisation that performs this principle exceptionally well is the American Red Cross. Due to the nature of its work in the wake of emergencies, quick decisions have to be made – however, not all fast decisions yield positive results. For this reason, the Red Cross encourages employees to learn from their mistakes, discuss challenges openly and accept failure as a valuable part of strategy implementation. “If you make a decision and it’s the wrong one, course correct really quickly,” advised American Red Cross President and CEO Gail McGovern in a Forbes Insights case study. “I have seen more leaders just stick to their strategy and fail because they don’t want to admit they made a mistake.”
After a project failure at the Red Cross, details are carefully dissected by team members and mined for valuable insights. McGovern told Forbes Insights: “We are really proud of the fact that we’re a learning organisation. After every disaster, you should see our conference room. We just whiteboard every single lesson learned and what we’re going to do differently the next time.”
Last but not least is the 10th principle: celebrating success and recognising those who have done good work. As leaders get involved in the day-to-day work associated with strategic initiatives, they may overlook the importance of taking the time to acknowledge people and their contributions. “The simple act of writing a thank you note can have a big impact,” Anderson told World Finance. “I set aside time every week on my calendar to do this, to ensure that this critical last step doesn’t fall by the wayside.” She has also observed that word gets around when senior leadership shows that kind of interest and appreciation.
Equally important is generous and public acknowledgement of those who demonstrate the leadership behaviours and programme delivery capabilities that make a strategy succeed. Asking them to share their experiences motivates and educates everyone and pays off exponentially.
The People Manifesto
As a complement to its 10 principles, Brightline also developed the People Manifesto. “People are the essential link between strategy design and delivery; they turn ideas into reality,” Anderson explained. “They are the strategy in motion.” But at the same time, people are frequently the most misunderstood and least-leveraged asset, Anderson said: “While the principles do address issues related to talent, the People Manifesto crystallises some fresh and even contrarian insights about behaviour, leadership and culture that can help to either mitigate or manage some of the issues that can stall or inhibit strategy implementation.”
In today’s business environment, strategy planning cycles need to be more nimble than ever
Just as the human element makes change possible, it can also make the process of strategy delivery messy and complicated. People have different interests, motivators and levels of tolerance, which influences their behaviour and can create potential misalignment. In fact, according to research carried out by Forbes Insights, 94 percent of those surveyed said they face challenges when trying to create a culture of change. Meanwhile, 38 percent of respondents said employees see change as too much of a threat and even fear losing their jobs.
The fear is not unfounded: a study by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that between 400 million and 800 million of today’s jobs will be automated by 2030. “Change is often processed internally, and even subconsciously, as a threat; the response to that may well be irrational,” Anderson said. “New strategies almost always require different ways of working, so leaders must recognise that both time and effort are needed to shift individuals’ interests, mindsets and behaviours.”
For instance, international staffing company ManpowerGroup prioritises open communication across its firm to make the value of new technologies clear to the very people who will be affected by them. With AI, the benefits of automating customer conversations are emphasised – specifically, contact centre agents are freed up to focus on more mission-critical tasks.
Even when people are convinced that changes are in the collective interest, their individual behaviours may not align if the personal cost of change seems too great. “Management needs to look out for entrenched behaviours and create the conditions needed to make change individually desirable, all the while ensuring it aligns with the broader interest,” said Anderson.
It is also essential for leaders to treat their teams with respect, while remaining explicit and resolute about the consequences of not participating in the new behaviours or reverting to old ways of working. Not everyone will be able to make the necessary changes, but it is in management’s best interest to try and get everyone on board.
As such, senior leaders need to engage and activate the extended leadership team, speaking with one voice to model the new target behaviours. That said, those accustomed to leading must be prepared to follow when appropriate. Anderson explained: “We’re conditioned to believe that to be valued, we always have to lead, but there is also a time and a place to follow.”
“Leaders need followers to be successful. Make follower-ship a valued behaviour and let people know that just as it’s OK for people who don’t traditionally lead to do so, it’s also OK that some people will never lead. But their contributions should be valued as well.”
Creating the conditions that allow both leaders and followers to flourish during strategy implementation may require a cultural shift. “It also requires the recognition that culture must not only support strategy, but – like strategy – it must be dynamic and constantly evolving. While culture cannot be built per se, aided by blueprints or checklists, it also can’t be left to chance,” said Anderson. “The intricacy of culture is that it is a living organism made from the collective tension of individuals’ behaviours and responses. Navigating that tension in an increasingly complex and changing environment depends on a shared sense of purpose and trust among employees.”
The advancement of the Brightline Initiative’s 10 Guiding Principles and its People Manifesto coincides with significant changes for project professionals – those at the centre of strategy implementation. Indeed, both can help executives understand how to best leverage the key talent that project professionals represent.
People are frequently the most misunderstood and least-leveraged asset
According to Forbes Insights, executives believe that the implementation of a well-designed strategy depends on smart technology choices and project management prowess. “The strategy-implementation gap creates tremendous opportunity for the profession,” Anderson told World Finance. “We’re already seeing a growing demand for skilled project managers, as they are more frequently being recognised as the people who take ideas and turn them into reality.”
The emphasis on strategy, technology and leadership skills at the organisational level mirrors what PMI has found to be essential in sourcing project management talent: a combination of technical, leadership, strategic and business management skills, known as the PMI Talent Triangle. Anderson noted it is increasingly important that project managers have the ability to learn and keep pace with technology: “Today, due to fast-moving technological advances, the traditional Talent Triangle skillsets include an overlay of digital-age skills.”
The recognition of the importance of project management skills for successful strategy implementation marks a significant shift in C-suite thinking, according to Anderson. Previous PMI evidence (both quantitative and qualitative) has found that executives did not tend to focus sufficiently on the opportunities and capabilities that project management skills represent. Indeed, people with such skills often support and even embrace frequent change, thereby better positioning themselves and the organisations they work for to compete and succeed in a fast-paced, disruptive business environment.
The talent evolution
Another significant change for the profession is how project leaders are perceived and deployed within organisations. Project leaders are taking on roles that demand greater accountability, not just around traditional areas such as budget, timelines and resources, but around the full delivery landscape. Their role is expanding to that of an innovator, a strategic advisor, a communicator and a versatile manager.
Anderson explained that titles are evolving as well. “We see project managers, team leaders, scrum masters and product owners, delivery, implementation and change managers, and transformation leads, among others,” she said. “We also see the lead project role morphing from project manager to project lead – and even project executive in some organisations.”
While this new vocabulary reflects the expanded and essential role these professionals play in managing during disruption, focus should ultimately be kept on the process and the end result. “It doesn’t matter whether the activity is called a project or a change or a strategy, or whether the method is called management or innovation or implementation,” said Anderson. “At the end of the day, someone is always going to have an idea and someone else is always going to have to make that idea a reality.”
For organisations to win at disruption, executives must learn to manage the influx and influence of disruptive technologies, and must invest in the relevant talent. No organisation can prepare for each and every eventuality, but they can sharpen their ability to respond to the inevitable challenges that arise as they implement what they thought was a well-constructed strategic plan.
And while organisations may be able to articulate their strategy for dealing with disruptive technologies, doing so will be meaningless if they fall short when it comes to executing against that strategy.