~ 9 MIN READ
Overwhelmed and Underachieving? Consider Using Strategic Initiatives
Typically, organizations can identify hundreds of projects that "need" to be completed. Most of these projects address a problem, usually someone feels burdened to implement them, but oftentimes the leadership team has not identified, defined, or actively managed those projects for maximum strategic impact.
Without discipline from the top, hundreds of projects continue to go unfinished and over budget without any real impact on the organization's mission. Even with great project management, many organizations fail to execute strategy. Why is this?
What are Strategic Initiatives?
Strategic initiatives are key action programs focused on achieving a specific objective or closing a gap between a measure's performance and its target. They provide organization leadership with a framework to review all the current projects, define the expected impact on the mission, and then focus on those few key projects that will cause immediate and measurable changes in how the organization functions. Strategic Initiatives are not "business as usual," they are the few critical projects key to improving an organization's delivery on its mission.
Defining and Prioritizing Strategic Initiatives
First you have to define the need: Why prioritize initiatives? You need to narrow the list of activities that the leadership team focuses on to the few things that will truly drive the execution of the strategy. The Strategic Initiative selection process begins by collecting a complete list of projects. All relevant information such as project budgets, expected benefits, risks, and owners or project managers should also be collected. Once this list is complete, leadership is ready to begin the review.
Each project should be plotted against the organization's Strategic Objectives. Add a mark for each Strategic Objective that the project will positively impact. See Figure 1 for an example.
Analyze this chart and begin prioritizing each project as High, Medium, or Low strategic impact.
Thinking about Alignment
Projects without strategic impact on any objectives are not good candidates to become Strategic Initiatives. Instead, these low-impact projects should be considered for cancellation.
In the same manner, if a Strategic Objective does not have any current projects supporting it, leadership should consider assigning new projects to support the Strategic Objective, or re-evaluate whether the objective is being sufficiently defined and delivered upon.
Selection and Implementation
Strategic Initiatives are like the U.S. Marines – "the few, the proud." The leadership team should be paring down the list to a select, high-priority group of Strategic Initiatives that will stand out against the noise of operational and day-to-day projects.
For example, some people within the organization might consider routine capital expenditures for preventive maintenance to be a project, but this is a task that does not have to be discussed and managed at the executive level, and it will typically not drive a change in performance of strategic measures. Strategic Initiatives need to be limited to only those efforts that have the potential for significant strategic impact on the overall organization.
Routine operations and low-impact projects are about "doing things right." They are about "doing the right things" that will make a big difference for the long-term strategic position of the organization.
Ideally, by the end of the selection process, the original list of many projects has been narrowed down to 8-15 initiatives. Each of the initiatives now has a defined outcome directly related to the Mission and Strategic Objectives. Additionally, each Strategic Initiative also has an enthusiastic Owner who is responsible for drafting a budget and key milestones and then presenting this plan to the leadership team for approval.
Through the process of prioritization, the leadership team should be building consensus and understanding about how organizational resources will be best allocated in achieving Mission-Driven Success. There should be a major reduction in non-strategic projects, instead shifting to an alignment of effort behind these few key initiatives. The entire organization, including leaders and those on the front line, should feel less stretched and more supported in completing the projects that will directly drive up performance measures.
These initiatives are not about "doing more with less," they're about helping your entire organization focus on doing the most important work, and setting aside lower-priority distractions.
Milestones are a key project management tool to use with Strategic Initiatives, serving as points in time when major tasks begin or end. The Initiative Owner is responsible for ensuring major milestones are completed on schedule and on budget, and should also keep the leadership team up to date on progress.
Leadership does not usually need to know about minor milestones, but they should be updated whenever a major milestone is falling behind schedule or needs more resources.
For projects with multiple milestones in planning, start-up, delivery, and completion; an Initiative Owner may consider using a simple Gantt chart to communicate with the Leadership team. Gantt charts model the progression of a project by individual tasks over time and can help a leadership team better understand a plan's progress in relation to other plans. See the image below for reference.
Leaders need to take responsibility for initiatives and milestones. Like your objectives and measures, you should report on the progress of completing your initiatives each month or quarter when you report on your Balanced Scorecard. Several things can cause red flags to go up with initiatives: you may be behind schedule, you may lack the resources, or you may be over budget.
Like objectives, you should flag initiatives as red, yellow, or green and come up with a plan to correct the initiative. Maybe the strategy has changed or it has become less important to complete the initiative within the given environment. Regardless, you need to report what you learn and demonstrate its impact on the execution of the strategy.
Successfully executing on your initiatives will increase your measures significantly over time. A disciplined focus on your key strategic initiatives will help your organization avoid distractions, eliminate wasted effort, and get results on the objectives that matter most.
A real-life example of managing Strategic Initiatives
We know that managing Strategic Initiatives is no easy task. Here's the story of one of our clients, an international finance institution, who is leveraging ClearPoint to successfully manage and track all of their initiatives.
As of mid-2018, this client was sending a quarterly strategic performance report to its board in a PowerPoint presentation. The PowerPoint was lengthy, showing the different measures for hundreds of strategic initiatives across four large divisions. While the board was ultimately able to discern how each division was performing individually and the company’s total overall performance, the presentation was an overload of information and charts. Most board members would admit that they were not reviewing all hundred pages of detail with the same level of attention.
The challenge on top of that was the time it took to create the board report. There were hundreds of embedded Excel files in the PowerPoint presentation. Each file had to be updated, and the PowerPoint became unwieldy with the usual challenges of version control. The bank was spending hundreds of hours each quarter just managing this report.
The bank had already deployed ClearPoint for basic strategy planning and, based on the success of the office of strategy planning, was hoping to see similar success in a broad-scale deployment of ClearPoint. The goal was to shift the institution’s reliance away from Excel and PowerPoint by automatically tracking and evaluating strategic business initiatives, or projects, within ClearPoint. This would consolidate data on a single platform and foster better strategic alignment across the company’s four divisions.
We worked closely with the client to determine how to translate the information from the quarterly PowerPoint presentation into an accessible, easy-to-understand briefing book. For example, the presentation included over 30 slides showcasing measures from different divisions.
Additionally, the bank reported the status of all initiatives using a single pie chart that showed the percent of projects that were on track, off track, and in progress. They wanted to provide more helpful information to the board, without sending them too many pages of information. So, our challenge was to provide the client with more information in fewer pages.
We broke down each presentation slide and built custom templates and styles for all strategic initiatives and related elements. Here’s a brief summary of how that worked:
In ClearPoint, the left navigation appears as a scorecard “tree,” showing all the financial institution’s divisions and departments. Users simply need to click on an item to dig deeper within the navigation. For example, clicking on Retail Banking in Division 1 brings up a screen showing the objectives, measures, and initiatives for that department. For example:
- Objective: To increase revenue
- Measure: Increasing the number of new credit cards
- Initiative: Increasing credit card direct sales
To aid in project management, ClearPoint also includes Gantt charts, which include the milestones for all strategic initiatives. Examples of a milestone for the credit card initiative might be to achieve an increase of 5% in direct sales for new credit cards by the end of Q2, or hire 10 new salespeople by the end of Q1.
Our banking client had fairly complex business initiatives with multiple layers—on average, each division had about 100 initiatives with seven milestones each...and many had additional sub-milestones. That translated to hundreds of items whose performance needed to be evaluated. ClearPoint has no limit to the number of initiatives or milestone levels, so we were able to add all our client’s data to their account. Now, all initiatives across every division would be in one place, rather than each division emailing spreadsheets with updates for individual projects (imagine managing 100 spreadsheets per division!).
The automatic evaluations work by “rolling” values from the bottom up. So, owners of the base-level sub-milestone enter a percent-complete value (this number is typically determined using a formula from your project management system that combines due dates, budget, etc.). The percent-complete values for all sub-milestones are then averaged together automatically and rolled up to obtain a value for the corresponding milestone; all the milestone values are then averaged to obtain the percent-complete value for the corresponding initiative. Initiative status could then be used in a weighted-average format to automatically evaluate objectives. The automatic calculation of values was very effective because it took the subjectivity out of performance reporting (one of the challenges the bank was experiencing at the time).
Within ClearPoint’s system, users see color-coded status indicators next to objectives, measures, initiatives, and milestones. Depending on the percent complete, the status will show as red, amber, or green (RAG). The client even leveraged custom status indicators to show if the project was on hold or complete. This status indicator shows performance levels at a glance. The institution’s board, or any leadership team, can see performance status indicators for top-level objectives and drill down into initiatives, milestones, and sub-milestones for additional details as needed.
Initiative Count Dashboards
We built a custom briefing book for the financial institution that closely resembled its quarterly PowerPoint report. The briefing book includes all the same information—including an executive summary, the organization’s strategy statement, and performance dashboards—but in a clearer, more visual format. Most notably, the bank’s briefing book includes an advanced version of the slide that summarized the status for all strategic initiatives. The institution’s simple pie chart has been transformed into a more detailed, interactive chart that segments initiatives by division:
When the institution's users update data within their account—for example, adding a percent-complete value to a milestone—that information is automatically rolled up and reflected in this dashboard (and throughout the briefing book, where applicable). For the quarterly report, the bank’s board can quickly see the performance of strategic initiatives for each division, understanding how many are complete, on track, delayed, and more at a glance.
The institution leverages scheduled reminders to ensure each initiative owner is updating their elements on a quarterly basis. As long as users are updating data at the lowest level of the automatic evaluation roll-up, the briefing book will contain the most current information every time it’s run. If board members want more information, they can click on any “piece of the pie” to see the data behind the chart, all the way down to the sub-milestone level. This briefing book is a template that can be easily generated every quarter.
Results & Conclusion
This international financial institution received great feedback from its board and leadership on the new quarterly report. The upgraded, interactive format was more user friendly with more accessible data. Equally important was the objectivity the automatic evaluations brought to the institution's strategic business initiatives. It’s easier for the board to manage performance across a global organization, establishing a standard that all teams can be responsible for.
The bank was also able to leverage the flexibility of ClearPoint’s strategy software. We took a highly customized, niche report and rebuilt it within our system to consolidate information, automate workloads, and improve reporting processes overall, saving our client hundreds of hours each quarter.
ClearPoint offers a powerful solution for organizations in a variety of industries. What can we do for you?