Five Tactical Hurdles that Trip Up Strategic Initiatives

Strategic initiatives are driven by a need for improvement in the business condition-increased revenue, decreased costs and customer satisfaction are often the primary motivators. These initiatives are frequently enabled by technology change, and most certainly, by the introduction of new business processes.

Also, these initiatives are usually complex projects that start with high organization- wide expectations, only to evolve into a series of misunderstandings, loss of trust, or worse, a perception of completely missing the boat!

Rather than blame the technology or business processes being introduced, it is important to look at the intangible elements that cause the most havoc- those that revolve around how people are introduced to the change and guided through it.

Here are five questions to ask when planning or managing a strategic initiative that will help to keep an eye out for the intangible people issues before they cause a downward spiral in organizational perception.

1. Are "People Projects" Becoming "Technology Projects"?
It doesn't take much for a complex strategic initiative to become a "technology project", void of an end-user focus. The shift from "people" to "technology" can be subtle, as the complexity of the design begins to eclipse the project team's ability to keep users at the center of design choices. A typical response to this shift is to call anything that involves people a "training issue", to be addressed by others at a later time.

Instead of taking this responsive position, user impact should remain the centerpiece of design choices — regularly reflected on, especially during the design phase of technical projects. Make sure that someone in your organization keeps user concerns in front of the technical design team so that the question is continually asked, "how will these design decisions impact our people?" This should be a daily ritual, bringing a discipline of "translation" to the early design phase of a project, rather than leaving it to training professionals in the eleventh hour.

2. Do Internal and External Resources Understand Their Complementary Roles?
Internal resources understand how their organization is structured and how work gets done, while external resources are intended to provide guidance on integrating new technologies and business processes. Both groups are critically important to the project outcome, but surprisingly, their interdependent value is not explicitly understood or stated.

One symptom of a lack in mutual understanding is when people start expressing "I assumed x" in team meetings and project dialogue. This is a precursor to covering ones you-know-what, playing the blame game, or most troublesome, a lack of focus on problem solving.

Teamwork, not as an end-result but as a process needs to be treated with serious reflection. Clearly defining and communicating the roles, goals, and responsibilities between internal and external resources will enable teamwork to manifest itself.

To get off on the right foot, pull the larger team together and conduct a facilitated session to uncover the roles and interdependencies between people and groups. To provide the most value, structure this as a learning experience, with the intent of uncovering more questions than answers around "what makes us a strong team?" Once you start this reflection, observe how people are behaving as a team, and insert corrective actions along the way.

3. Are You Communicating the Right Information at the Right Time?
Communication strategy has more to do with understanding the business culture and how groups respond to change rather than applying a set formula to a communication need. Do people expect to be informed well in advance of change? Are they accustomed to being told after decisions have already been made? Will constituents use information to slow down the change process? In the context of achieving a perception of project success, these questions should be reflected on in constructing a communications plan.

A fundamental standard is to set expectations and deliver on what you say. The most important thing to avoid is setting false expectations. If business owners are asked for feedback on design options that affect business processes, the communication to this group should either be "Your feedback is needed to make a decision" or "We're informing you of a decision already made." One or the other.

Don't give the impression that you care what people have to say when all you're doing is informing them of an outcome already decided. Nothing causes a loss of trust and credibility more than disingenuous communication.

4. Does Your Project Plan Address the Human Dynamics of the Actual Work?
A common misconception is that a comprehensive project plan will keep people focused on achieving the intended results. As a means to capture hundreds of day-to-day tasks that roll up to project milestones, project management software is a tremendous tool. However, it's not a panacea, especially for the elements that involve human connections, such as how people normally get things done or what decisions get made at the water cooler.

People often mistake building the electronic plan with doing the work, and can easily find themselves with a completely new project (i.e., managing the software that manages the project plan). Working through a project is much more about how people work together — managing progress through dialogue and reflection, not checking off task lists.

5. Have You Identified the Genuine and Lasting Value for Those Who Are Most Affected by the Initiative?
There are many reasons why a strategic initiative is taken on; compliance, inability to perform management reports, outdated legacy systems. But, better management reports do not translate into value for the majority of staff who will use these new systems. Especially in the early days of the change, people go through frustration, anxiety and a concern that they will be worse off than they were before, expecting the additional work burden to fall on them. Lasting value for this group comes down to being able to impart the simple idea "I understand what I'm doing and why I'm doing it."

Change can result in an opportunity to move people beyond "doing work by rote" to becoming knowledgeable and integral assets to the organization. Tapping into people's desire to feel good about what they're doing will go a long way to building acceptance of a new initiative.


It's the intangible elements of change that get the least attention and can produce the greatest people impact. On projects that involve technology, pay close attention to people's needs that arise within the team and across the organization. Work to uncover unspoken assumptions made in and outside the project team.

They may be pointing to intangible people issues that, if revealed, will lead to better decision-making and increase the chance of fostering a perception of success across the organization.

Presentation Tip

While in the middle of your presentation, it's easy to lose perspective of your participants needs. One way to get yourself back on track is to ask the question? "If we were to end our session right now, what would you walk away saying you didn't hear or learn?"

This will refocus your presentation on the group, will garner appreciation from your audience, and will increase the likelihood people will walk way getting what they need.