How to avoid major problems in your organization

One day a lily pad appeared on the surface of a pond.  The next day there were two lily pads.  On the third day there were four lily pads, on the fourth day there were eight lily pads, and so on.  The pond was completely covered with lily pads on the fiftieth day.  The question is, on what day was the pond half full of lily pads?  The answer is, of course, the forty-ninth day.
Leaders often wait too long to address problems.  They wait until it’s too late–Day 49 when the problem has become so great extraordinary measures must be taken.  We’ve all seen it happen at Blackberry, at Blockbuster, at Kodak, and many others.

In all these cases, the problem wasn’t the external market change, but how the organization responded.  I’ve seen this first hand when handling organizational crises during a Fortune 500 bankruptcy, getting a major change program back on track at a mid-market utility, completing culture change at the top of a medium size transportation company, and accelerating a strategic shift at an Inc. 500 manufacturer, and many others.

Usually the problem is fairly well-known in the organization, but doesn’t show-up on any performance metrics.  And for a number of reasons, the leader isn’t told about it until it’s too late. I am regularly asked by leaders to provide objective organizational assessments to identify such problems early so the leader can take effective action before it gets out of hand.

What early-stage problems are growing in your organization?  What are you doing to get an objective assessment of problems before Day 49?

© Bob Legge 2014  All rights reserved

Strategy and The Final Mile

In the cable industry, the final mile is connecting the cable system to customers’ homes.  It is the most costly part of the entire system, and in many ways the most important.  When implementing a business strategy, the ‘final mile’ is connecting the strategy to each individual’s objectives.  In many ways, it is the most important part of strategy implementation because unless you have people diligently working to achieve the strategic objectives, it won’t happen.  Yet in many companies, little is done to make this final connection.  Instead, the strategic plans get put in binders for senior managers, and those binders move from desktop to credenza to file cabinet, often not to be seen until the next planning session.


Some companies do a better job by writing articles for the company intranet, giving presentations and producing videos, but they don’t work well at making the final connection because they are general, one-way, and non-interactive.  So everyone is left with a bit more knowledge—they know what the program is, but their not connected.  It hasn’t changed their job or their focus so they go on doing what they’ve always done—which may or may not support the strategy.


So, what can you do to make the final connection?  The answer is a few very practical and important steps:

First you need a strategy that is clear and cogent (many aren’t.)  If I walked into your next senior executive meeting and asked everyone to write down your corporate strategy in 1-2 sentences what do you think would happen?  Would the responses be the same?
Second, the strategy needs to be communicated.  I know of three CEOs who thought their strategies were  too confidential to tell their organizations.  One has to wonder how they expected to achieve the strategy, and what is so confidential; after all, we’re not talking about the formula for Coca-Cola, or Apple’s next big thing.
Third, you need managers who understand the strategy, can articulate it simply and clearly, and have the skill and motivation to connect it to each individual’s objectives.  For example, “Here’s our corporate strategy, here’s what it means for our group, and let’s talk specifically about how your job needs to contribute to its success.”
Finally, you need managers who will reinforce the strategy on a regular basis by communicating it again and reviewing progress on a monthly or even weekly basis.
Connecting every one of your people to your strategy is the final mile.  It’s where the power is.  What is your process for the final mile?

What Duke Ellington can teach business about innovation

Every year, for the past 14 years, I have read a biography of a famous musician or composer.  As I read each book, I listen to their music and how it evolved.  This year I’m reading Terry Teachout’s recent biography of Duke Ellington, the most prolific composer of the 20th century.  Ellington and his band were known for continual innovation–a hot topic in business these days.    Duke carefully blended conformity and freedom of expression to achieve continually innovative results.  Every band member was required to be impeccably dressed and well-mannered so they would look the part and project the right image.  And they were required to memorize every song–no sheet music or music stands–even though Ellington would routinely change the song parts, sometimes even nightly.  But that’s where the conformity ended; these were not “company men.”  Ellington knew he needed to produce new sounds all the time to be successful, and to do that, he wanted the very best musicians–each one a stand-out on his own.  And he gave them the freedom to express both their individuality and musical expertise knowing that would result in more innovation and further success.  It worked well for over 50 years.

Organizations wanting more innovation also need to strike the right balance between conformity and individual expression both to deliver consistent results and to innovate.  What are you doing with your systems, processes, and talent management to achieve the right climate for innovation?

Copyright 2014 Bob Legge  All rights reserved.

How successful leaders implement strategy

Last month I wrote about the three key factors of successful strategy implementation:  A distinctive strategy, effective leadership, and a sharply-focused organization.  Of the three, only leadership provides the traction to continually move a strategy forward.  Here are ten ways leaders can strengthen their ability to implement and execute strategy:

  1. Take the lead.  Be visible.  Communicate incessantly.  The most effective leaders are continually talking in terms of the strategy and showing the way forward.  When you implement a strategy you are taking your organization into the future.  Give people a very clear picture of where you are headed, get people to buy-in and change how the organization thinks about itself.  Projects and timelines are critically important, but don’t confuse those with leadership.
  2. Prioritize.  Strategy is about making choices about what you will do and equally important, what you won’t do.  If you’re trying to be world-class in everything, then it’s highly likely that you don’t have a good strategy to begin with.  Focus on the few most important initiatives and drive them forward a mile instead of trying to move everything forward an inch.
  3. Build strong buy-in among your top team.  Head nodding in agreement during a strategy session won’t cut it.  You need every senior leader to be strongly advancing the strategy by publicly (and privately) supporting it, and by demonstrating support through their actions and behaviors:  How they communicate and make decisions.  This is the number one reason why strategies don’t get implemented.
  4. Allocate resources to achieve the strategy.  Make sure the key strategic initiatives are adequately staffed and given the appropriate resources to get the job done.  If you don’t, the strategy will go on the back burner or be seen as an add-on to everyday tasks.
  5. Objectively assess the skills needed for the strategy to be successful.  You have to very tough on this one.  If the skills aren’t there you need to take action to correct it, or change the strategy.  For example, if new products are a key to your strategy, you’ll need excellent new product development talent and process.
  6. Don’t underestimate the importance of implementation skills, particularly leading organization change and transformation.  There are effective and ineffective ways to drive change in organizations.  You want an organization that embraces change, and is eager to make it happen.  But all too often, change is ineffective and the result is short-term and superficial with an alienated workforce.  You’ve got to have the right implementation skills, and they are not normally found within most organizations.  This is the number two reason why strategies don’t get implemented.
  7. Make the strategic tactical.  Drive strategies down to individual performance objectives and decision-making.  Foster both accountability and transparency.  You want everyone accountable for their part in achieving strategic objectives, and you want everyone to know how well they are doing.  If you have a new strategy, and peoples’ jobs don’t change, something is wrong.
  8. Assiduously maintain a strategic focus throughout the organization.  Keep its attention on achieving strategic objectives and head-off the tangents and diversions that are all too alluring.
  9. Be personally involved in moving forward the few most important strategic initiatives.  Not running them.  And certainly not micro-managing them.  But making sure that everyone knows which initiatives are most important and that you are closely watching the progress.
  10. Engage the organization.  Both intellectually and emotionally.  Slide presentations about strategy rarely connect.  A good story will.

How leaders balance strategies and tactics

The Vail condo I’ve been to a few times has a large hand-lettered sign in the garage that reads, “Wait for me, for I am your leader.”  It’s funny, but not if you’re in an organization with that kind of leader.  Employees, particularly high performers, want to know that their leaders have a destination, a strategy to reach it, and a plan to make it happen.

Leaders lead.  They are out front, showing the way, thinking of the next big step and where they want to take the organization.  They have a mix of the strategic and the tactical in their jobs and the ratio varies, often by company size.  Small organization leaders often need to devote most of their time to tactical issues, whereas in the largest companies, the top leader will be nearly 100% strategic.  But in any case, their organization’s growth requires the leader to maintain a strategic focus and to be personally involved in at least the few most important strategic initiatives.

How much time do you spend on strategic vs. tactical issues?  What’s the right strategic/tactical ratio for your position?

© Bob Legge 2014  All rights reserved