Insights

In-Career Education and Implementation Competencies

Rudy Giuliani once noted that “Change is not a destination, just as hope is not a strategy.”  The wisdom in that statement was recently underscored during a webinar I conducted on the topic Best Practices in Strategy Implementation, sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Business Markets[1].  The webinar technology that was used allowed for some real-time polling of the participants.

The very striking finding that emerged from the use of this polling technology was that only 26% of the respondents said that their companies offered any in-career education programs related to implementation[2].  Most corporations today spend well over $1000 annually per employee on education and training.  Such programs span a wide range of topics – from how to develop strategy to how to motivate employees to how to use the newest IT tools.  But the finding from this poll, as well as what I’ve heard over and over in discussions with executives in many different companies, is that very little of this money is spent on developing competencies related to implementation projects.  My translation of this, in the spirit of Giuliani’s quote, is that successful change management is thought to only require the definition of the destination, perhaps sprinkled with a pinch of hope.

The assumption that is made by those corporations that don’t sponsor in-career education relating to implementation competencies, at least implicitly, is that employees should know how to manage and contribute to those types of projects.  Somewhere in their genes or background, there should be the skills necessary to bring them to a successful conclusion.

Unfortunately, that’s a bad assumption in many cases.  There are processes that best practice companies have put into place that have been documented to save time and money and lead to better results – one of the few instances in which there isn’t a necessary choice of the form “Pick any two – better, cheaper, or faster”.  Investments in implementation competencies can pay quite a dividend along all three of those metrics.

There is quite a bit that can be learned on this topic, from the basic elements of blocking and tackling relating to project management to creative practices that enhance the ability of the implementation team to avoid detours and manage surprises that arise during the project.  There are best practice skills relating to even the monitoring process through which a company’s leadership provides direction and problem-solving support to key implementation teams.

A further motivation for developing strong implementation competencies emerged from recent research on the challenges of making changes to a firm’s business model[3].  Such business model changes are frequent, typically motivated by sound strategic thinking, related to factors that range from profit improvement to growth to new market entry to the introduction of new technology.

In essentially all cases, such changes represent a major challenge to implement.  That reality underscores the importance of the following finding from the research cited above.  By a very substantial margin, the two reasons cited as responsible for situations in which the new business model failed to deliver the hoped-for results were “Implementation process was poorly managed” and “Internal resistance to the new business model”.  Those two factors emerged from a long list of potential problems that spanned a spectrum from a flawed strategy to customer resistance to competitor responses.  The teams that will be responsible for implementing business model changes will have to grapple with challenges aplenty, some involving the technical aspects of the change, some involving gaining buy-in from customers and other key third-party organizations, and some involving challenges associated with resistance from within the corporation itself.

As is the case with other type of management education, you can learn a lot about the key competencies that should be emphasized as part of in-career education program from experiences, both good and bad.  An overview of some of these foundations, drawn from case study experiences with leading business firms, is included in CoDestiny[4] and in a recent compilation of articles on Best Practices in Strategy Implementation[5].  While those references suggest a long list of possible areas for focus, as a first priority, I suggest that there be an emphasis on skill development in three categories.

First is the basic blocking and tackling of effective project management.  Every project associated with implementation, change management, new business models, or similar motivations has complexity that can only be addressed through a structured and orderly approach, drawing upon best-in-class tools to manage and monitor the project.  The project team needs to have clarity as to assignments and responsibility at a very detailed “What – Who – When” level of detail.  There are many toolkits available for use by those managing the project, some provided by third-party vendors, others developed within the corporation.  But making such tool kits and their instruction manuals available isn’t enough.  Implementation leaders and project team members need to be well-versed in the use of these tools, including gaining the experiences that have been developed by previous practitioners.

Second are processes by which key insights are gained from the internal and external constituencies that will be impacted by the changes planned.  This not only responds to the challenge underscored by the finding on internal resistance to change, but also to the reality that customers, channel partners, suppliers, and many other external organizations are likely to have an important “vote” on the success of the project.  One of the best practice lessons that emerges over and over is the need to fully understand the external implications of change, and get into a position to sell the concept and gain support from key third-party constituencies.  One project manager with whom I recently worked said that “Bringing the voice of our customers into our project plan was the single most important ingredient behind our success.  They warned us of multiple problems that each had the potential to derail what we were doing.” His insight is common among leaders and organizations that have brought external messages into the project plan.

There is as second dimension to this recommendation regarding bringing key insights into project planning and management.  One of the realities of most change management projects is that they will lead into some uncharted waters.  It’s as much of a bad assumption to assume your team can grapple its way through such waters as it is to assume that they are genetically able to manage complex projects effectively.  Drawing upon lessons from other environments, through processes as simple as talking to people with the right experiences through ones as formal as benchmarking, can allow a team to navigate such uncharted waters without running aground.  Insights and information are keys to the success of many projects.  The ability to gain such insights must be a central part of the skill set of project leaders and their teams.

The third suggested focus in terms of competency development involves the ability to plan for uncertainty and surprises.  It is a rare when a project of any magnitude doesn’t involve both, and project success along all dimensions – schedule, budget, and outcome – is often determined by whether the unanticipated twists and turns derail the project or not.  Scenario planning is a skill, one that can be learned and embedded into project management processes and disciplines.  Sometimes the alternative scenarios reflect the changes that inevitably occur in the business environment, from frequent ones like business cycles to infrequent ones like tsunamis.  Other scenarios are driven by competitor responses (or customer responses) to the changes being implemented.  The more the implementation team is able to monitor changes and have plans in place to address them, the more likely they are to succeed.

In all three of the categories outlined above, some of the learning that should be included in in-career education programs is general, but some of it has to be specific to each firm.  The latter focus on customization must reflect your firm’s business environment; its key systems and processes; the nature of your company’s critical relationships with suppliers, distributors, and customers; and many other factors.  Companies that have implemented strong in-career education programs on this topic combine a general approach to managing implementation with components that have been developed in-house for use within their firm.

Skills in managing implementation and change can help you reach important destinations, and solid skills and competencies can ensure that hopes are realized.  The business environments in which we all operate will demand more and more agility on the part of our companies, in order to realize the opportunities that are emerging and address the challenges that are inevitable.  The companies that build solid foundations in terms of competencies relevant to implementation and change will be those that are able to celebrate the destinations that they reach and the hopes that they realize.

Author: George F. Brown, Jr.


[1] The webinar is available, including both the slides and the audio file, without charge on the ISBM web site at http://isbm.smeal.psu.edu/library/webinars/best-practices-in-strategy-implementation.

[2] Among the webinar participants who provided answers to the polling questions, 84% represented that they were presently involved in a major implementation project.  The firms that these individuals were from were mostly North American companies serving business markets, with most of these companies being manufacturing firms with annual sales of $1 billion or more.  While the participants in no way represented a random sample, their “demographics” are such that the messages they communicated through these polls should be taken seriously.

[3] See George F. Brown, Jr., You Know It Ain’t Easy, Business Excellence, September 2011, available on-line at http://www.bus-ex.com/article/strategy-business-model-changes

[4] Atlee Valentine Pope and George F. Brown, Jr. CoDestiny: Overcome Your Growth Challenges by Helping Your Customers Overcome Theirs, Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group Press, © 2010.  See especially Chapters 17 and 18.

[5] George F. Brown, Jr. and Atlee Valentine Pope, Best Practices in Strategy Implementation (Articles from Business Excellence), Blue Canyon Partners, Inc., © 2011.

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