Wednesday, April 20, 2011

From Strategy to Implementation - An Examination of Previous Workplace

Reading the article "From Strategy to Implementation" led my memory back to the organization that I worked for 1 year during my undergraduate studies. At that time, when the Assistant Director introduced a new strategy, I personally thought it's a good idea - so did the Director. Yet, the strategy took forever to implement. In fact, before I left, it was still in the beginning stage. What happened?

This organization operates the resemblance of University Center at CMU, except it is at my undergraduate institution. Every year, many initiatives were made to provide a better service to our constituents (i.e. students, faculty and visitors). The strategy that was being rolled out was basically to "do more, and more quickly", which then involved an overhaul (or creation) of project management system to vamp up project efficiency. While exploratory discussion showed that top management was generally in favor of this, and subsequent planning activities ensued, the project management system was still in its infancy stage when my term ended. (It is ironic that the project of creating a new project management system took probably the longest among all projects.)

The alignment checklist no doubt answered a lot of my questions.

1. People
  • "Our people have the necessary skills to make the strategy work" - The new project management system implementation is IT-driven. Unfortunately, traditionally mid-level managers handle projects offline. Apart from data entry, email communication and minimal documentation, managers rarely use any kind of project management system to plan a timeline or track progress. Some managers were not even technology-savvy.
  • "They have the resources they need to be successful" - The most lacking resource is time. To many of the managers, "using computers" to track projects means that they have to spend more time on computers in terms of documentation and coordination, and that would take time away from their daily operational activities.
  • "They support the strategy"
  • "Their attitudes are aligned with the strategy" - Based on the above reasons, the managers were skeptical with the system.
2. Incentives
  • "Our rewards system is aligned with the strategy" - Essentially, there was no reward system to incentivize managers! The Project Manager did set performance goals, but did not set incentives to counteract managers' resistance.
3. Structure
  • "Units are optimally organized to support the strategy" - For every new project, there would be a new committee created just for the purpose and disbanded after the project was finished. Inevitably, some of the team members were pulled into the committee even though their schedule was occupied by daily operational activities. While I do not know what the best way would be to structure project teams, I do know that the traditional team formation was not the most conducive way to align with the strategy of "doing more and more quickly". Team members had to pick up additional workloads, usually unwillingly or without their availability being considered.
4. Supporting Activities
  • "The many things we do around here support the strategy" - Accounting department took weeks to process procurement orders; marketing department took weeks to print out publication materials. Simply adding a project management system to track progress does not improve efficiency if the bottlenecks switch to ancillary units.
5. Culture
  • "Our culture and strategy are well matched" - Organizational culture was laid-back. Student-service driven projects were rarely a "crash" project for managers, so tracking progress and achieving milestones on-time was not ingrained in managers' mind.
Examining these five categories on the checklist, it was now clear why implementation took so long at my previous workplace. Strategy was visionary and brilliant but supporting activities, people and structures were not in place to align with the strategy. Alignment not only defines successful relationship between corporate strategy and operations, but also defines a critical skill for leaders. Kotter said that one of the most important characteristics leaders should possess is the ability to align employees with corporate objectives and goals. Strategies must be well-communicated throughout entire organization to ensure successful implementation. I am glad to see that this article underscored this point.

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