“70 percent of all change initiatives fail,” assert David Leonard and Claude Coltea from Gallup. A ballpark figure that has been more or less accepted in the management world when it comes to making an argument on the success rates of strategy formulation. Mark Hughes challenged this popular opinion in his paper “Do 70 percent of all organizational change initiatives really fail?” The researcher concluded that “the existence of a popular narrative of 70 percent organizational change failure is acknowledged, there is no valid and reliable empirical evidence to support such a narrative.” 70, 90, 50, or 30. Even if the exact percentage of the failed change programs cannot be ascertained, what is correct to say is that not all change programs or strategies are successful. But to what degree is the strategy at fault when it comes to the failure of organizational changes? Because once framed, a strategy appears invincible on paper (the amount of days and cumulative people-hours spent in designing it makes one think so). It is, more often than not, the execution of that strategy that falls short, and thus, the strategy falls short in achieving its objectives.
The hindrance companies’ face in change management isn’t strategic thinking, but strategic acting. And a strategy, no matter how exceptional it looks on a whiteboard, it is worthless if the ones facing the whiteboard do not act according to it after stepping out of the meeting room. Peter Bregman, author of three books on coaching, and CEO of Bregman Partners, a leadership development company, suggested the Big Arrow Process for effective execution of strategies. In this article, we explain all the steps involved in the big arrow process:
Step 1: Identify the Big Arrow
One of the preliminary things to go amiss in the execution of any strategy is the inability to focus on the important things, because there are so many tasks to complete. What the Big Arrow approach asks you to do is – define the ‘Big Arrow’ (the most important organizational outcome to achieve over the next 12 months), and circle in on the one most important thing that the organization needs to focus on when executing the strategy. Hence, this one thing has to be the best catalyst to drive the strategy forward.
Strategy communication and strategy execution are not the same things
Step 2: Check if the Big Arrow is on target
This is a validation step. This intends to check if the Big Arrow has been identified correctly, and whether it has the capability to drive the strategy forward. If the answer to the following questions is a conclusive yes, then it is supposedly on target.
- “Will success in the Big Arrow drive the mission of the larger organization?
- Is the Big Arrow supporting, and supported by, your primary business goals?
- Will achieving it make a statement to the organization about what’s most important?
- Will it lead to the execution of your strategy?
- Is it the appropriate stretch?
- Are you excited about it? Do you have an emotional connection to it?”
Step 3: Define and validate the Big Arrow behaviour
As much as outcome clarity is important, behaviour clarity plays an equally significant role in strategy execution. It is important to define the most critical behaviour necessary for making that strategy’s execution a success – it could be openness, trust, collaboration, or ownership. In an assessment, the architect of the Big Arrow Process, Peter Bregman, determined the Big Arrow behaviour in a subject organization by asking –“What current behaviour do we see in the organization that will make driving the Big Arrow harder and make success less likely?” The opposite of the answer was articulated as the Big Arrow behaviour.
Step 4: Select the change-makers
The next step is to identify and select the people who will be responsible for achieving the Big Arrow outcome. These people need to have the necessary technical skills required to accomplish the outcome, and also exhibit the Big Arrow behavioural trait. Bregman suggests the following questions to ask to select the right people:
- Who has the greatest capacity to affect the forward momentum of the arrow?
- Who is an influencer in the organization?
- Who has an outsize impact on our Big Arrow outcome or behaviour?
The names that occur repeatedly in the responses to these three questions should be selected.
“The most important strategy question you need to answer is: How can we align everyone’s efforts and help them accomplish the organization’s most important work?” -Peter Bregman
Step 5: Circle in on the focus areas of all individuals
For each of the change-maker, Bregman suggests to determine one each of the following:
- “Key contribution” – the core work that the change-maker will do to move the Big Arrow closer to the bull’s-eye.
- “Pivotal strength” – the key skill which is needed to make that “key contribution”
- “Game changer” – the one area of improvement in the change-maker, which when bettered, will also improve their ability to make their key contribution
One, because, it helps the strategy execution, as Bergman calls it, “laser-focused”. Each individual can bring her own distinct strength to the table, and make strides towards their own key contribution, use their own pivotal strength, and get better at the one critical thing.
Step 6: Coach, then coach better
Next is continual support and coaching to help them etch closer to their targets, identifying behaviours halting or hasting their progress, and stifling or amplifying them accordingly. Document the obstacles being faced by leaders unearthed in the coaching sessions, and then get together as a team to address the deficiencies in the system or individuals, to constantly get better.
Step 7: Drive results
Continual support (in the form of coaching) during the strategy execution journey keeps making the Big Arrow leaders perform better. Constant intervention, course correction, and collaboration can drive the organization towards the destination. Keep a track of the milestones crossed and regularly measure improvements made. For instance, Bergman, for a strategy execution intervention he did in a company measured the progress being made by the people involved in The Big Arrow process. Bergman found that after coaching, “90 percent said they were more effective or much more effective at making their key contribution; 88 percent said they were more effective or much more effective achieving the outcomes of the Big Arrow; and 84 percent said they were either more effective or much more effective addressing their game-changer”
Adopting the 7 aforementioned steps may not rid the organization of all strategy execution failures. Workplaces are complex ecosystems with each having its own cultural context. But they certainly will reduce the failure rates. Maybe if adopted ubiquitously, the popular narrative about failed change management initiatives may drop from 70 to 30 percent. That will be a huge achievement of the Big Arrow strategy.