Everyone knows that the company is facing a number of challenges. Just ask people what is wrong and you will get an earful of reasons why things are not what they are supposed to be. There are many reasons. There are even more answers regarding what the company should do. When you ask, so what are you doing – the reply is “not much.”
This describes strategic constipation. The term is a little graphic but it captures the situation where everyone knows what has to be done, they feel the pressure but for whatever reason no one is willing to go first. This is a sign of weak management as management, particularly at the most senior levels – executive management and strategic management.
There are multiple causes of this type of management weakness. Understanding the cause in your particular enterprise is critical to move the enterprise off its back foot and into the market. These causes include the following sources:
Inaction often starts with poor information as business metrics and targets that do not readily connect with customer and operational performance drivers. This bogs the enterprise down through endless discussions about what is really going on, debates about what the ‘real’ causes are or the actions required taking action.
Fragmented leadership teams create competition in the executive suite that goes beyond normal debate about different approaches to move forward. Visible disagreement on how to move forward freezes lower levels of management and transmits the conflict down executive levels.
Enterprise attention deficit disorder (EADD) occurs where the company cannot seem to focus on the vital few priorities that will drive performance. When each group, business unit, etc has their own improvement plan and views on company strategy EADD is present.
Moving forward from inaction to action can happen either top-down or bottom-up
Enterprise leadership can take a top-down approach by concentrating the executive team on one or two initiatives to raise performance. Executive debate happens within the executive team but it is not transmitted down the organization.
Top down approaches live or die by with executives being on the same page. Building support for top down initiatives requires strong performance data that connects business performance with business drivers. Test the strength of this connection by looking at a performance level and asking, what needs to change to sustain an improvement in that area. The simple answer will be to change either the math on how the field is calculated or change either the numerator of denominator. That is weak data. Strong data allows you to understand the root cause of the performance issue, the actions to take, and the new targets to measure benefits realization.
Individual managers can remove strategic blockages using a bottom up approach that creates incremental improvements – particularly improvements touching the customer or core drivers of profitability. Many will downplay bottom up approaches as being too little. However in reality, top down continuous improvement is a hallmark of many high performing companies.
Relevance and relationships are the weak points of bottom-up approaches. Managers must support improvements that are relevant for performance; else people will see the improvement as a fad and lose heart. Make improvements tangible by answering the question “what will be different about the customer, our work, our performance when we are done?” The answer will tell you if the improvement is worth doing.
Bottom up approaches can also create a cycle of ‘pass the trash’ where one group solves its issues by creating issues for other related groups. This frequently happens in ‘chained’ process activities where one group’s output is the direct input of another group. In these cases, expand the bottom up approach to solve the issue across the chain rather than at an individual link.
Strategic constipation is a sign of weak management as the need to change is clear, but the will to change is weak. This creates a backlog of changes and initiatives that need to be done. Weak management will let these changes fester until they create a need for ‘transformation’ – the private sector term or ‘reform’ – the public sector term. Often by this time it may be too late. Avoid that through having relevant data, an executive team that works as a team, and the willingness to act and improve rather than admire the problem and weaken.
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