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Swiss Consulting Group :: Newsletter :: Catalytic Projects: Be the Future Today
December 2006

Thomas D. Zweifel


Catalytic Projects: Be Today the Future...We must be the change we wish to see in the world.Mahatma GandhiThomas Zweifel, Ph.D.
ceo@swissconsultinggroup.com

As I write this, I'm sitting in the Business School library at Columbia, where I teach. I look up from my laptop at a Chinese student; pinned to her backpack is a sticker with Gandhi's face and his famous dictum, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world." The truth is out there...

But it's easier said than done. Yes, if you want to be president, you have to think and act presidential now, even while you are a candidate. But if you want a systemic change in your organization or society, how can you embody that change in the present, before it happens? How can you be the future now?

To answer, we have to go backward first. One afternoon last spring, our COO Richard Radu and I sat down with a senior technology executive at a financial services firm. He told us that the company faced a tough organizational challenge that involved moving thousands of people offshore. "People are overwhelmed," he said; "they don't know how to manage the change. They're afraid of losing their jobs." How could he and his senior management team minimize the human costs, allay people's anxieties, and still get the job done with maximum cost savings and speed?

Interviews with him and other key stakeholders revealed quickly that there was no shared vision or strategy for the proposed change. People said things like, "We are wedded to the past... There's lots of discussion, but no direction... There's apathy, complacency... And many people don't know how to manage across cultures – they have no competence in cultures."

It was the type of situation we often encounter in organizations. When a strategic challenge is intermingled with people, communication and culture issues, things become complex and unpredictable, and traditional planning falls short. Why? Because conventional planning is often riddled by multiple shortcomings, and this company was no exception:

  • Conventional planning is divorced from action. "Top management is fully on board," said another manager, "but below they are not." Top-level planners had expected the lower echelons to implement their blueprint. This works well for capital development projects, such as a bridge, a pipeline, or a canalization system for Mumbai; but it breaks down in any living system that depends on the human element: initiative by all stakeholders. In the words of one focus group we asked: "There is no understanding of the strategy below the top. People don't even know that this is our intent."

  • Conventional planning kills the human spirit. At Swiss Consulting Group we are always suspicious of buzzwords like "cascading down" or "buying into..." They mean that people are recipients or even objects, not stakeholders or owners, of the strategy. Because planning was top-down, there was "weak identification with the firm and its vision." Planners were about to steamroll their plans through the organization, without giving those affected the chance to participate, let alone lead the change. Top-down planning can kill off the most precious asset of the organization: people's ideas, creativity, and leadership. The result: demoralized employees and brain-drain.

  • Conventional planning misses opportunities. Because planners did not communicate well – and especially since they did not listen or seek input from those affected, in all countries and cultures where the company operates – they ignored strategic opportunities to integrate already-existing initiatives. "There's silo thinking," said one manager. "We are fragmented. We have totally different processes." The result: lack of focus, in-fighting, culture clash. "We do everything, but nothing right," said another executive. "We have 25 initiatives!"

  • Conventional planning is slow and costly. Planners had little regard for the changing entrepreneurial landscape created by their actions. This sacrificed the firm's ability to turn on a dime and take entrepreneurial leaps. The result: sometimes massive sunk costs (you build a heavy and costly infrastructure that nobody wants to use) and always inefficiencies. "Our IT is expensive," complained one manager. "The firm is not competitive."

  • Conventional planning misses the root-causes. Since top managers did not stand in the shoes of the people and cultures affected, their plan got stuck on the surface. It attacked symptoms with a fix-it approach and missed systemic root-causes of problems and hence comprehensive solutions derived from the active involvement of all stakeholders. The result: bottlenecks and quality issues.

What to do? Our answer: Strategy-In-Action1, a 7-step dynamic process linking people with strategy, and strategy with action. Strategy-In-Action has been called the most systematic and scientific approach to strategy. The difference between conventional planning and Strategy-In-Action (see Table 1) is not theoretical – it can be the difference between failure and success, or between billions of dollars in sunk costs and large-scale profits. When Motorola launched its infamous Iridium infrastructure, it paid a heavy price for its traditional planning: a $1 billion loss. Iridium became one of the 20 largest bankruptcies in U.S. history.

Table 1: Conventional Planning vs. Strategy-In-Action

Conventional Planning

Strategy-In-Action

Rigid blueprints miss opportunities

Catalytic actions for systemic change

People treated as objects or obstacles

People are the solution & the key agents

Good analysis but lack of follow-up

Focus on hands-on actions and results

Quick-Fix attitude at symptom level

Attacking the roots of problems

Fragmentation and culture clash

Full communication; differences are contributions

Non-specific, cumbersome solutions

Details are integral to the solution

Theory and planning

Breakthrough results

In interviews and workshops, we brought together people from across the company who needed to build a shared understanding, vision, and strategy – from the brilliant but opinionated strategy chief to the smooth human resources chief to line managers in several offices around the world. Some participated by videoconference or phone from their offices overseas. As facilitators, we made sure that no viewpoint was excluded from the process – especially stakeholders who would usually be ignored, or who might bring up difficult and unpopular issues.

While we believe in open-source and sharing our tools (see Communicate or Die and Culture Clash), we can't give away the process without betraying client confidentiality. This newsletter is about step 6: launching Catalytic Projects that pull the future to the present – just as Gandhi said. Instead of moving in a linear fashion from the present toward the future, Catalytic Projects are usually 100-day, small-scale, low-cost, low-risk projects that "force" participants to think and act as if today were tomorrow. These projects act as pressure-cookers to produce quick wins and alter the landscape of what is possible. The new landscape then informs – and transforms – the process by providing rapid feedback. They test the strategy in action so you can get immediate results and see whether your strategy works.

Catalytic Projects differ sharply from traditional planning. They typically focus on filling gaps in existing processes to eliminate duplication of efforts and save resources; on convergence of existing initiatives; and on opportunities to spark improvements. Projects can be of two types. Ground-breaking projects explore innovative ways to achieve your objectives. Proof-of-principle projects show with sufficient authority that successful innovations can be scaled up.

The ground rules are simple. Pick easy actions first; quick wins strengthen confidence and a sense of momentum. Ask periodically, "What could go wrong?" to anticipate and prevent future breakdowns. Take risks and innovate. And talk straight and make bold promises and requests.

You might say, What does all this have to do with me? Our answer: a lot. That's the beauty of Strategy-In-Action; every participant is a key agent of the strategy. Here is what you can do. Craft your own 3-year vision, alone or with your colleagues. Some of our clients craft their own fundamental commitments or a fictional newspaper article about their organization five years out. It doesn't matter what tool you use; the key is to have a future that is a magnet for action today.

Once you have a compelling vision, create a 100-day Catalytic Project. How can you live the future now, in the next 3 months? To be truly catalytic, your project must be (a) bold, visionary and unpredictable (not based on the past); (b) measurable, with clearly defined goals, (c) inclusive, meaning that it forces you to go beyond your personal agenda and lead others.

Here are some examples of Catalytic Projects our clients in all sectors – private, public and nonprofit – undertook, with results that were never given by the past or even by current resources:

  • The company above launched eight Catalytic Projects, such as recruiting internal "ambassadors" for the strategy, coaching their communication skills, and having them communicate across the firm; and setting up focus groups to engage employees, create a common language and genuine two-way communication.

  • Another company brought a new product to market in record time and produced $6+ million.

  • One multinational produced $70 million in additional sales through a new channel.

  • Participants in our "Leadership en Action" and "Communique ou Meurs" workshops in Haiti launched and carried out 80 Catalytic Projects, for example a clean-up of a slum, reforestation, a school, latrines, civic education for youth, and an educational radio show for children.

  • Participants in the UN Development Programme's Virtual Development Academy implemented Catalytic Projects in 21 countries focused on democratic governance, for example fighting corruption in Kuwait and Ecuador, empowering people with disabilities in China, training judges in Serbia, strengthening women's participation in Saudi Arabia, reforming the police in Bangladesh, or fighting poverty through decantralization after the Tsunami in Sri Lanka.

  • A Columbia leadership student, a young entrepreneur, took on his dream of financing and opening a new restaurant, hiring and training the staff, and designing the menu. Another went for persuading the governments of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to apply for jointly hosting the 2025 Olympic Games in Jerusalem.

  • A nongovernmental organization (NGO) increased fundraising by 1,000 percent.

  • One division of a mid-size high-tech company went for delivering a new product, independently tested, and getting it out the door with zero defects.

And the list could go on. Again and again, these catalytic projects show that when you combine strategy with people power, the results are extraordinary. So don't wait. What fruits can you garner before the end of 2006? The time is now to achieve your vision. As the sage Hillel said already 2,000 years ago: "And if not now, when?"2

If you live in the United States, happy Thanksgiving holiday (we say thanks to all our clients for your confidence in Swiss Consulting Group). And to all of you, best wishes for a meaningful holiday season.

Sincerely,Thomas D. Zweifel

If you want to know more about how to put Strategy-In-Action to work for your organization, click here

1 This approach was pioneered by The Hunger Project (www.thp.org) in 1990 in a joint venture with India's Planning Commission on a strategy for ending hunger in India, and is based in part on Hamel & Prahalad, "Strategic Intent" (Harvard Business Review, May-June 1989, pp. 63-76.

2Pirkei Avot 1:14

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