Strategic stepwise improvement

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Consultants are attracted to Mission Statements the way flames attract moths. They always seem like such a good idea … until you get started. Almost inevitably, the roomful of people deteriorates into a squabbling mass. Some are fighting to make sure what they do is included; all argue passionately about the placement of commas and whether “happy” or “glad” is the more appropriate adjective.

I proposed a solution a long time ago (“Mission statements: Their cause and cure,” January 29, 1996) and updated it in Leading IT: The Toughest Job in the World. (Short version: Focus on concepts, not phrasing; make sure each concept is viewed as an alternative, not an embellishment; and insist that each concept describes ends, not means.)

It’s time to wrap up our discussion of organizational optimization. It began with a proposition from the KJR Manifesto: That to optimize the whole you have to sub-optimize the parts. Then we figured out that “optimize” has to be with respect to only one system variable. And last week we found that for real-world businesses, optimization is really a chimera anyway because there’s no practical way to understand a business and its markets well enough to figure out what “optimum” even means.

What business managers need to do, it turns out, is to set their sights a bit lower — to improve. Since “form follows function,” is the touchstone of organizational design, just as it is for any other design discipline, if you want to know what constitutes improvement you have to know what you’re trying to accomplish. That means understanding the enterprise’s mission, vision and strategy. Then you can craft your own organization’s mission, vision and strategy so they further those of the enterprise.

This is why consultants facilitate Mission Statement drafting sessions. It isn’t because we find Mission Statements … and Vision Statements, and strategies … appealing because we lack better ideas for padding our contracts (well, okay, some consultants do that, but at IT Catalysts we would never stoop that low — it would hurt our lumbar vertebrae). It’s because clients hire us to help them improve organizational performance, and we can’t until we know in which direction “improve” lies. (Just to make sure we’re on the same page: Mission is about the present — what you’re supposed to do. Vision and strategy are about the future: Where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.)

Were it not for the future, this wouldn’t be all that difficult. With clarity about what you’re trying to support and how you’re supposed to support it, you can be pretty clear about what you need to improve so you support it better.

But you can’t ignore the future. Businesses have strategies, strategies are about change, and that makes things messy. You and all the other parts of the whole have to figure out how to change in ways that are sufficiently well orchestrated that the business doesn’t tear itself apart, but not so carefully orchestrated that it loses all elasticity. You also have to figure out how to allocate your budget and staff so you don’t stop supporting the present, but also don’t support the present at the expense of the future. There is no magic formula. There is, however, Guideline #2 from the KJR Manifesto: Big solutions that work great generally start as small solutions that work acceptably.

Strategies start with a design and a plan. The successful ones start with an additional item: Recognition that the design, the plan, or both might be flawed.

That being the case, the plan should, if at all possible, be organized into small steps, not giant leaps. Each small step is defined in terms of improvement to one or more parts of the enterprise. Following each small step you reconnoiter, to make sure the design, plan, and company are all holding together.

To illustrate the point, imagine you and a friend decide to attend a Halloween party in one of those two-person horse costumes. Now imagine that the first thing you and your friend try to do is gallop around a path with a lot of twists and turns.

You might make it. More likely, one of you will zig while the other zags, tearing the costume apart. If that happens, both of you will be at fault, for trying to go too far too fast.

But while you both might be responsible for the problem, only one of you will end up looking like the back end of a horse.