Saturday, January 12, 2008

Strategic Planning Analogy #145: Top Management Commitment

One time I was sitting in a meeting listening to a woman describing the way she wanted us all to accomplish a particular project. At one point in her speech, she mentioned that the project would fail unless we had top management commitment.

At that point, a number of people in the audience simultaneously let out a strange sounding groan. It didn’t seem like they had practiced this in advance. It seemed jointly spontaneous.

Afterwards, I noticed that all of the people who groaned were working for the same large business consulting firm. When the meeting was over, I asked one of them why they all had groaned.

I was told that it was a response to hearing the term “top management commitment.” They had been trained to groan whenever the term came up, in order to discourage its use. Their point was that top management commitment is essential to all major projects, so one was not shedding any light when it was said to be essential to a particular project. Pointing out a given was did not deserve to be listened to.

I still thought it was a bit pompous for them to groan like that, but then I remembered that they were consultants.

Top management commitment is indeed important to the success of many business ventures. I googled the phrase “top management commitment” and got over 60,000 hits. These hits claimed that top management commitment is essential for business initiatives as diverse as:

- Improving Quality
- Improving Safety
- Accomplishing Environmental Initiatives
- Getting More Diversity in the Workplace
- ERP projects
- Changing Technology Platforms
- Improving One’s Export Business
- Getting Six Sigma in Place
- Putting together a Knowledge Management Program

I suppose that if I kept reading all of the references, I would have found that “top management commitment” is the cure for bad breath and bunions as well.

And, of course, there were references to the fact that top management commitment is essential for successfully accomplishing business strategy. Even though it can be a critical component to strategic success, I have not mentioned it in any of my approximately 150 blogs on strategic planning. The reason is because I still remember those groans and I don’t want anyone groaning at me.

Employees tend to commit to the same things which they see top management committed to. I guess that’s why top managers are called leaders. Wherever they direct their commitment, the rest of the organization follows their lead. This is why it is a given that top management commitment is essential for major projects.

It is impossible for top management to intensely commit to every aspect of the business all the time. There is just too much going on. In order to be effective, management needs to narrow the focus to a smaller set of key activities. That is why one of the most important principles of strategy has to do with focus.

You cannot give employees a list of the top 200 most important initiatives for the next year and expect all 200 of them to all be executed flawlessly. Their attention will be diverted and diluted in too many directions. Excellent execution requires a narrow focus that commits to only a few things at a time. Great leadership is in knowing which few things to focus on at a particular time and in rallying the organization to follow your committed focus.

This could also be used as the definition of great strategy.

A lot of times when people talk about strategic planning, they can get all wrapped up in the process of the planning. Time is spent drafting fancy documents like Vision Statements, Mission Statements, Goals and Objectives, Internal Strengths & Weaknesses, Reports on the External Environment or Competition, and so on. Then there is time spent in various offsite planning meetings with inspirational speakers and breakout work sessions. Finally, there can be large notebooks and/or Powerpoint presentations which sum it all up.

Now there can be important benefits from all of this activity, but at the end of the day the key strategic planning question is this: What are the few things that top management should focus their commitment on?

This is such a critical question because, as we have seen, companies tend to move in the direction where top management commits their focus. In practical terms, this means that top management commitment is in fact the driver of strategic execution. What you focus on defines your strategy.

At this point, it can almost become irrelevant what all of those vision statements, mission statements and other such strategic planning outcomes were. You can see this by asking yourself this question: If all of that strategic planning work said to go in one direction, but top management commitment was focused in a different direction, which way would the company go? You guessed it; they would follow the commitment instead of the process.

The purpose of all that strategic planning process work is not to have fancy documents and well run meetings. Instead, the purpose of strategic planning is to discover the most important issues to focus on, and convince the leadership to commit to these issues as their primary focus. Anything else is secondary at best.

So when you are developing your strategic planning process, make sure that the purpose of all that activity is to:

1) Learn what should be focused on;
2) Inspire management to commit to the focus; and
3) Follow-up to ensure that people do not get off the focus

Successful strategic planning is not about doing as much strategic planning stuff as you can. It isn’t a long checklist of activities to check off like a grocery shopping list. Just doing the process should not be the goal. Instead, strategic planning is to be a means to greater end—to properly focus the commitment of top management. If that goal is not accomplished, then all of that planning process stuff is a waste of time.

I have a Dilbert coffee cup. On one side of the cup it describes what a company is like without strategic planning. It shows the telephone ringing and Dilbert not having a clue of what to do. On the other side of the cup it describes what a company is like that has strategic planning. It shows Dilbert boldly picking up the phone and telling the person on the other end of the phone “We don’t do that.”

This is a very important point. If the goal of strategic planning is to create focus, then the byproduct of that focus is knowing what not to focus on. It helps us boldly say "no" to the activities which are not consistent with the focus.

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