When it comes to the successful execution of key strategic initiatives the first mile matters. Indeed, a more cautious approach in the initial stages is one of the most effective ways of de-risking any strategic initiative or critical project.
A Floundering Project
‘This initiative was doomed from the start’ said the leader of the struggling project in a tone of frustration. ‘I can see clearly now….’ she added after a brief pause. ‘The obstacles and setbacks we now face can be traced back to the very earliest days of the project‘ she concluded.
One of a select number of strategic initiatives regularly discussed at board level, the project was essential to delivering on a key pillar of the organization’s ambitious strategy.
Launched in a fanfare some 8 months previously the project, if successful, had the potential to shape key aspects of the organization’s future – perhaps even the future of its industry. Now, however, doubt had overtaken confidence and ambition.
Reality or Denial?
After multiple missed deadlines and with growing stakeholder disquiet, the project leader’s comments, if overhead, could have been incendiary. After all, conversations around the project were already quite tense and sometimes acrimonious. As far as many were concerned, the project’s success or failure would be laid at her door.
Project set-backs and missed deadlines naturally turned up the heat on the project leader. But was the project leader seeking to evade responsibility or simply stating the obvious?
A Fatalistic View?
It seems fatalistic to believe that the success of a strategic initiative might be determined before it even began. Surely, the talent and skill of senior executives backed by the resources and know-how of the organization were the primary determinants of success.
Yet, there is no denying the importance of what some call the ‘first mile'(1). The ‘first mile’ lays the foundation for the success of a project with the potential to deliver real business impact. However, it isn’t just about what happens after the kick-off of a project (e.g. securing some quick-wins), but what happens before the project even gets started.
Our research underlines the inordinate importance of the initial stages of a strategic initiative or critical project. It highlights two key parts of the first mile:
- The first is connected with strategic rationale
- The second is concerned with project rigour (or what is traditionally called project management).
Let’s explore each in a little more detail.
First Mile – Strategic Imperative
Obviously, any strategic initiative starts with strategy. It exists only to bring the strategy to life – to meet a particular business need or objective.
Within any organization there are lots of projects and priorities competing for limited resources and even more limited attention. From within this ‘portfolio’, projects must be prioritized and sequenced. Not all projects can or should proceed and certainly not at the same time.
Think of strategy as a starting grid – with projects and initiatives being positioned on the grid based on their importance to the business:
- Some proposed initiatives may never get past the idea stage or make it onto the starting grid – (the business case may not be strong enough or it may lack a powerful executive sponsor)
- Other ‘chosen’ initiatives will make it onto the grid based on a mix of importance and urgency.
- However, not all the ‘chosen projects’ can proceed at the same time – they must be sequenced in a manner as to optimize success.
By prioritizing and sequencing those projects that matter most, the starting grid or strategy aspect of the first mile:
- Ensures that projects must compete for resources & attention
- Focuses attention and aligns resources in line with the strategy of the organization
- Prevents a proliferation of projects and dissipation of effort and resources
- Connects projects and initiatives to business impact and success
- Ensures that the timing is right in terms of the window of opportunity and the readiness of the organization.
First Mile – Project Rigour
Those projects that successfully move up the starting grid have the opportunity to become real live projects. This is the project stage of the first mile where project rigour is applied to:
- Ensure that projects get off to a confident start with maximum chances of success
- Prevent false starts
- Ensure sufficient level of planning
- Ensure compliance with internal processes and procedures
- Address key success factors and risks or uncertainties
- Test the level of organizational commitment to the project, including:
- Executive sponsorship
- Allocation of talent and resources
Many who are fond of the word ‘strategy’ quickly lose interest when the conversation turns to ‘project management’. Yet, many of the challenges that ‘dog’ the execution of strategy stem from an absence of project rigour.
Despite growing disillusionment with traditional project management and the desire for a more agile approach, the fundamentals of planning must still be applied to the execution of strategic initiatives. That includes:
- Clear project scope, timeline & budget
- The need for absolute clarity regarding results
- A full understanding of business and stakeholder needs
- The management of risk
- Regular project reviews
There is a growing recognition that all plans are based on incomplete knowledge and hinge on assumptions, but they are still necessary. Yes, the plan can and will change, but there must be a plan.
First Mile – Test of Patience & Skill
The first mile is not high speed, it is often not very glamorous either. It may entail a lot of committee meetings, spreadsheets, business cases, and so on. Its mix of politics and bureaucracy is a test of patience and skill.
Some may even suspect that the process is designed to ‘kill off’ all but the most important initiatives, or at least to make initiatives compete with each other to secure backing. However, don’t curse the first mile, rather embrace it!
The first mile serves the vital purpose of ensuring that those select few initiatives that get the green light will have the maximum chance of success. It is essential in getting from strategy to success.
Stating with the End in Mind
There is no doubting the importance of the first mile of a project or initiative. Yet, it is often the last mile that proves the most troublesome.
Those driving ambitious projects and initiatives start with the end in mind and throughout the project keep their focus on the required project outputs and more importantly on the desired business outcomes and impact. In so doing, they aim to ensure that there are no surprises as they approach the finish line. In particular, that they don’t arrive at what they thought was the finish line, only to find that it has moved and that the stakeholders are waiting impatiently somewhere else.
(1) See for example: Scott D Anthony, who talks of ‘the first mile of innovation, where you take those precious early steps to translate an idea on paper into an honest-to-goodness business.’ See his book: ‘The First Mile: A Launch Manual for Getting Great Ideas into the Market”, Harvard Business Review Press, 2014.