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4 February 2021

Why, what and how – the magic trio of strategy implementation

In almost every company, I encounter one or more of four phenomena that jeopardize the implementation of strategic projects or cause them to fail. These four phenomena are:

It is astonishing how even strategically gifted thinkers allow these four factors to cheat them out of the fruits of the successes that should flow from their great ideas.

Let’s start by saying that the last three points in particular sound nastier than they are. Very few leaders are actually “demons” (as I call them), even if one of them goes up against colleagues with demonstrably base motives. Most of the time, these failings stem from human weaknesses that are operating at a subconscious level. We do not always set out to belittle others when we want to assert ourselves. As a rule, we don’t deliberately make others look bad when we are seeking to get the upper hand in a meeting. And only rarely do we refuse to do the right thing by others. In most cases, we simply lack the discipline to prioritize consistently or the courage to try new approaches that stray outside the familiar well-worn paths.

At first glance, the most harmless of the four phenomena is fixation on the “how”, which at least doesn’t seem to be driven by malice. However, it is in fact the most insidious of the four because it is widespread, has become dangerously normalized and is mercilessly seductive. When the HOW takes the lead, either the strategy or its subsequent implementation fails.

The HOW implies “What activities do we need to engage in?” And although we know to our cost that brainstorming is a waste of time if the purpose of the whole projectis still shrouded in fog, we still generate lots of ideas for such activities at the strategy meeting.

On a small scale, this is already noticeable in our private lives: Why argue about whether to go to the movies today or to the theater? Both are the HOW and therefore not worth discussing at this stage. What if you and your partner declared that you wanted to spend “a relationship-strengthening evening without the children” (who are conveniently parked at the grandparents’ house)? Would sitting silently side by side in an auditorium meet your requirements or would an evening in a small restaurant not be more suitable, because you can then talk undisturbed and even exchange sweet nothings?

Image: AdobeStock

This restaurant date – or even pizza, red wine and quiet music at home – may only occur to you if you focus on the purpose of the evening. This purpose is your WHY, the overriding thing you want to achieve.

If you neglect the WHY for the HOW, you will end up only doing what you happen to feel good about. Then you sit silently in the darkened auditorium and ask yourself afterwards why you engaged less with your partner than you had hoped.

It’s the same in any business project: in the steering committee, we don’t ask about the plan. A plan is nothing more than a string of activities that are dutifully worked through.

From the beginning to the end of the project, it is better to always ask about the WHY, then the WHAT and, only at the very end, the HOW. “Why are we doing the project at all?” should always come first.

Does that seem pointless to you? Observe your own projects: The more complex they are and the longer they drag on, the less the WHY gets mentioned over time. The purpose fades into the background as plans, task lists, milestones and nebulous traffic light statuses begin to dominate. Effectiveness decreases!

So instead of stubbornly chasing after the project plan, we need to realize that the aim of a CRM project is to increase customer satisfaction (our WHY). We then turn our attention to the WHAT: How will we notice on a monthly basis that we are really making progress? A huge CRM concept that lays down in ironclad terms today what is to be done in eight months’ time will not make customers any happier if the measures to be taken no longer match external reality in six months’ time.

Two or three variables focused on the output and evaluated on a monthly basis are more likely to achieve this. You could perhaps simply evaluate the number of cross-sells via the new CRM (outcome) or, if this is not yet possible in terms of time, the number of customers contacted for the first time via the new CRM system (output) or, or ... Think about it! Under no circumstances, however, should you measure progress by working through activities such as the number of “lines of code” (input!) or the scenarios developed (also input - HOW).

So that we don’t keep falling prey to the “how” temptation, I have formulated six handy everyday rules that increase our “why” discipline. Try them out – they work!

Kolbusa’s “No How!” everyday rules:

Matthias Kolbusa

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