7 principles that amplify change and improvement initiatives

Published on 23 June 2019 by Isaak Tsalicoglou.

The typical way of developing, launching, rolling out and managing initiatives in large and mature organizations is costly and utterly broken.

There are better ways to handle initiatives, by flipping the traditional approach on its head; it's not anymore about implementation projects, but about behaviorally-disruptive business models. Such "productized initiatives" can help to pave the way for diagnosing and improving the organization's capabilities for the development and launch of differentiated value propositions.

Companies around the world are spending millions per year on developing, launching and rolling out corporate change initiatives, often globally and across different (sometimes, all) functions. The topics of such initiatives are usually not related to a short-term need or "burning platform"(I), but rather to mindset shifts, behavioral changes, or up-skilling. These are what corporate leadership considers necessary in order to prepare for trends and mitigate risks that already impact or could impact the business favorably or unfavorably.

As such, topics in the past couple of decades across different industries have included buzzwords as diverse as Six Sigma, customer orientation, systems thinking, cross-cultural communication, innovation, entrepreneurial thinking and startup skills, or diversity & inclusion, to name but a few.

Bureaucratically intrapreneurial

Corporate initiatives are usually developed by people in a consulting capacity, even though their job title may not contain the word "consultant". If these people are internal to the company, their place in the organization depends on the initiative's categorization as roughly one of strategy, operations, technology, or people.

As such, internal consultants typically develop initiatives from within a company's "corporate development" group (strategy), in some part of the HR organization (people), in some kind of a "continuous improvement" group (operations/people), usually with a name containing "Lean", "Operational Excellence", "Business Excellence" or "Process Management", or—if applicable—in a functionally-focused part of the organization, e.g. in Logistics, Supply Chain, R&D, or IT (technology/operations).

Note that all of those potential initiative sources typically have—by definition, for a corporate group—managerial mindsets and experience, instead of entrepreneurial ones. Of course, singular persons within these groups may well be dynamic, customer-oriented, and entrepreneurial—and they might characterize themselves as "intrapreneurs" on their CVs.

Hero culture

However, even intrapreneurs will almost always be limited by the assumptions of the larger system in which they have to operate. They will also have to rely on the rare and valuable good of secure-base leadership from higher-up, in order to stretch the boundaries of the system, take risks, and evade command-and-control. The motivation for such actions is to move faster and more dynamically than the larger organization really believes it ever could. Such flexibility is mostly serendipitous, and cannot be taken for granted.

Furthermore, a total reliance on intrapreneurs has the potential to create a hero culture and link the initiative too strongly to specific persons and their career progression. This makes the initiative's (and the intrapreneur's) drive for success too obvious and hands over negotiating power to detractors, at the cost of the intrapreneur's flexibility to navigate roadblocks. Ultimately, the personification of the initiative through the singular intrapreneur reduces error tolerance and the willingness to experiment, and potentially damages the sustainability of the initiative in the long run.

Functional silos

Beyond singular intrapreneur "heroes," one could argue for functional groups taking over responsibility for initiative development. However, not all business functions place the same emphasis on systems, methods and mindsets during development as does e.g. R&D or IT, or on frameworks and stakeholder engagement during the entire life-cycle, as do Marketing people in product management/ownership roles, or systems-thinking Project Management people aligning work along the value stream until the launch or in post-launch improvement efforts.

And yet, even those functional groups that are more likely to have the chops to successfully develop and roll out something new, such as an ambitious new initiative, are too deeply involved with day-to-day business. Moreover, they are often limited by the organization's misperceptions and prejudices of a function's range of abilities. This is evidenced by well-known cross-industry stereotypes, such as "Product Management can't and shouldn't need to understand the technological aspects", "R&D doesn't and shouldn't need to know anything about the customer", "HR is focused on hiring and doesn't need to know about how things are done in product development", etc.

Or, for a simpler explanation why: developing and rolling out improvement and change initiatives is simply not part of the overwhelming majority of job descriptions. And, therefore, the necessary skills remain unseen.

Internal consultancies

Looking at the typical internal consultancies, it is also easy to argue that they sit too far away from the action, and—most problematically—are often too enamored with their preferred methodology and its concepts, be it Lean, Six Sigma, Agile, or any other bundle of either useful, enduring ideas, or passing management fads riding the hype cycle.

In general, and perhaps due to putting means (methods) over ends (actual improvements and change), i.e. by promoting a bureaucratic world-view, these "usual suspects" developing an initiative often lack finesse in addressing the needs and interests of the initiative's target "customers"(II).

Disconnected from the "customer"

Predominantly, initiatives' customers are people sitting in strategic business units or are out there in front of the paying, revenue-driving customer, directly impact the current and future business outcomes. For this reason, and rightly so, they are often proud to let everyone else know, and skeptical towards initiative promoters with the pitch of "I'm from Headquarters, and I'm here to help," which is actually far less empathetic than it sounds.

Some of these people are more systematic and open to improvement ideas, others less so. Unsurprisingly, and as anyone who has spent any time in larger organizations can attest, most of them do not really care at all about whether what they do is e.g. "Lean", "Agile", "world-class", "cutting-edge", "leading-edge", "best-practice in industry X" or any other of those classical yet also hollow beautifiers.

It is no wonder then that most people treat buzzword-laden initiatives with emotions ranging from indifference to mistrust; and then extend these to classical internal consultancies, external consultancies parachuting in and bringing the new cross-industry "miracle cure", or functional experts who want to forcefully apply their functional world-view across the entire business system.

Technology push—minus the technology

Such preconditions make it difficult for both functional and consulting groups to develop an initiative that not only impacts vanity metrics such as "number of employees trained"(III), but actually leads to tangible business outcomes. And, even if the initiative is well-crafted and impactful, it may still not deliver on its promise due to the approach taken for its launch and roll-out across the user base.

Big-bang "roll-outs"... but change isn't an IT system

Interestingly, and despite major insights on product development and launch in the past two decades, the currently dominant model for initiatives in larger organizations seems to still be one of development in "stealth mode" with little participation of the initiative's beneficiaries. This is then typically followed by a big-bang, strongly-promoted launch and persistently-hyped roll-out that continues for a few years in order to reach and train the entire user base.

The roll-out usually consists of workshops and e-Learning sessions (or, increasingly, blended learning) until every last one of the initiative's user base has—hopefully—absorbed key ideas. In other words, the beatings continue until morale improves.

You can calculate on the back of a napkin the expected lead time for the roll-out for an initiative, by making assumptions that balance the batching of participants in small-enough sessions for high-quality training, a reasonably-sized trainer pool for session delivery, and the reality of lead times for travel and feedback. The result will reveal time frames of 1.5 to 3 years for companies with 10'000 to 20'000 employees. And after that, of course, it's time to start the same approach once again, for a new initiative riding on a new buzzword, and quite likely with similarly dismal results.

Unsynchronized

This long lead time for the roll-out also means that different parts of the organization are always unsynchronized with regards to the initiative's ideas. And, since the roll-out is not driven by "market pull" or interest and curiosity in the key ideas, negative feedback by those uninterested or cynicism by detractors can shape perceptions, poison the well, and thus impact the expectations of the yet-untrained and their openness to the initiative's ideas.

In reality, such one-off roll-out approaches simply help to broadcast ideas, and rarely lead to the necessary behavioral changes or application of skills—except if there is a daily excuse or necessity to form new habits or do things differently. Therefore, the link between proxy/vanity metrics such as "percentage of employees trained so far" and target outcomes of e.g. increased performance is tenuous, at best.

In other words: the classical, managerial approach of developing and launching initiatives represents almost pure technology push subject to wishful thinking, scatter and hand-off—even though most "technologies" promoted are not seen by the targeted users as revolutionary or interesting to adopt, despite what the buzzword promoters and methods experts may believe, or want us to believe.

Seven principles from the startup world

There is, however, a different way to look at initiative development, launch and management: as an endeavor that strives to create, establish and grow a desirable, feasible and viable business model that sells usable, beneficial ideas within the larger organization. And, specifically: for this particular organization, its own special cultural and business context, under its own, specific and often peculiar boundary conditions, and for a particular time frame in its history and strategy.

Thankfully, in the past five years ideas and models for doing so for hardware, software and service products in real markets have been diffusing from startups into the corporate world. You may have heard of terms such as Lean Startup Design Thinking, User Experience (UX), Customer Development, Agile(IV), Business Model Innovation, etc.

Clearly, all of those terms are buzzwords in their own right, and each one has been marketed intensely.

Don't get caught up in the buzzwords

It doesn't really matter what these ideas are called, as they are all interrelated and based on similar key principles -- again, contrary to what promoters of each one separately want us to believe. Moreover, any organization that wants to apply them will still need to select, combine and adapt specific elements to create its own company-specific or situation-specific approach, instead of applying the models wholesale and by-the-book.

The good news is that—notwithstanding these necessary adaptations—these ideas and models have been proven to work just as well for developing, launching, rolling out and maintaining initiatives for change and improvement in a mature-company setting, provided that a few conditions are satisfied.

These ideas and models help to deliver better results than the aforementioned commonplace managerial approach by flipping it on its head, and effectively shifting the go-to-market path of the initiative's content from a technology push to market pull. Project management skills thus become far less important compared to product management skills, specifically for bridging technology and market with an entrepreneurial flair and appropriate approaches.

In order to realize the benefits of this "flip", business leaders must instill and follow seven key guiding principles that I have identified based on my own professional experience:

1. Business models; not projects

An initiative is a business model in a larger portfolio, not a project on a roadmap.

Treat the initiative as a comprehensive and internally consistent business model with its own life-cycle, instead of as a temporary endeavor (i.e. a project).

Manage an entire portfolio of interconnected initiative business models with overlapping value propositions, in order to accelerate entire programs, which you may want to avoid calling "transformations," as this is the ultimate buzzword, triggering eye-rolling and cynicism, rather than curiosity.

Connect internal functional and consulting groups in order to build on cultural hints and insights about business model elements that seem to work repeatably, reliably and at low cost/effort within this specific organization.

2. Segmentation; not alienation

An initiative needs to ultimately dominate its segmented market.

Consider the initiative's user base not as an undifferentiated group of "Company X employees", but as a market that contains various overlapping and interconnected customer segments, each with potentially entirely different jobs-to-be-done, each with its own set of pains and gains—and, ideally, with their own value propositions that could, perhaps, be delivered through the ideas of the initiative.

Go far beyond a defensive stakeholder management approach of segmenting the market in supporters, detractors and fence-sitters; instead, craft (and evolve) customer personas based on function, seniority, and other factors linked to the willingness-to-pay for the initiative's ideas.

Aim to achieve 100% market (mind) share, and keep the initiative's business model alive and up-to-date as long as it supports overarching strategic outcomes. At the same time accept that, realistically, a 100% market share will never be achieved, except perhaps for the most lukewarm, bland, or self-evident of initiatives(V).

3. Niche, desirable value; not one-size-fits-all

An initiative needs to deliver a set of value propositions linked to overarching strategic goals and business needs.

Understand how the business outcomes of the initiative will be translated and evolved into valid value propositions for the different customer segments, and which elements (principles, templates, tools, processes, coaching, etc.) can support them.

Converge reliably to desirable and impactful initiative content by co-developing the business model and its elements together with stakeholders and the future user base. Identify champions, who as early adopters will realize actual improvements that lead to positive word-of-mouth and drive early customer acquisition.

Avoid one-size-fits all platitudes and generalities. Instead, craft value propositions that address the needs of different segments without wasting people's time on things that sound great but may ultimately deliver no impact, or even do damage through the best of intentions.

4. Value engineering; not Swiss Army knife

An initiative's value proposition needs to be value-engineered based on employee insights.

Adopt a marginal cost/benefit (or "80/20") approach regarding the key activities of the initiative's business model, in order to prevent doing too much (workshops, and trainings, and events, and promotion, and ...) and overwhelming customers in the process.

Do not hesitate to introduce or phase out entire elements of the value proposition, or experiment with entirely new value propositions, cross-functional partners and channels.

Promote or discourage the use of method-related buzzwords in the initiative's marketing communications, depending on the company culture (matter-of-fact and down-to-earth, or driven by enthusiasm and prone to hype?) and the target segments' acceptance (or pre-existing cynicism).

5. Active life-cycle management; not stagnation

An initiative has its own life-cycle, and thus needs to be actively managed way beyond the launch.

View the initiative not as a static, final version 1.0 at first launch, but as an ongoing adaptation to new customer needs and feedback that must be elicited throughout all key activities during lift-off, and especially until reaching "orbit".

Handle the latter as something to be monitored and supported with "growth hacking"(VI), in order to promote viral growth that continuously decreases the marginal cost of acquiring new customers for the productized initiative's ideas. Aim to achieve lift-off, so that the initiative gradually relies less and less on its entrepreneurial product manager / change agent, and more and more on those who have already adopted its ideas.

Monitor feedback and track a backlog of improvements to the initiative itself; plan ahead for updates (e.g. v1.1) and upgrades (e.g. v2.0) of the initiative's business model as it keeps spreading through the market, ideally with virality and with less and less effort on the behalf of the initiative's product manager.

6. Behavioral disruption; not preaching

An initiative represents behavioral disruption, and is therefore similar to a high-tech product.

Consider the disruptive nature of behavioral changes implied by valuable, impactful initiatives; market and sell initiatives in the same way you would market and sell high-tech goods to mainstream customers. This means: aim to make the crucial transition between visionaries and pragmatists in the early phases of its life-cycle.

Correspondingly, initiative teams must create and evolve a portfolio of channels (live events, webinars, workshops, newsletters, video blogs, posts on social media platforms, etc.), through which word-of-mouth can be nurtured and market pull can be established over time.

At the same time, business leaders must provide the necessary support and act as a secure base for early and eager adopters of the initiative's ideas. This will ensure that new and unfamiliar behaviors can be tested, adapted, and turned into repeatable, low-risk behaviors that are acceptable by an increasingly wider audience and are supporting the overarching strategic goals.

7. Company-specific regulation; not by-the-book

An initiative's market is a regulated one, and the timing and extent of regulation depends strongly on the company culture and situation.

Interpret senior stakeholders' hierarchical power to push the initiative as an internal regulatory authority. These "regulators" should make adherence to the initiative's ideas increasingly mandatory and expected with an appropriate schedule and effort, so that the targeted strategic outcomes are maximized.

Consider also that premature and disproportionate top-down push to adhere to an initiative's key ideas is very likely to increase lip service and prevent positive testimonials, referrals, and "recurring purchases".

Inversely, understand that expectations of an entirely grassroots, bottom-up adoption are unlikely to materialize beyond singular innovators in the market, or groups facing their own burning platform and pulling on the initiative as a last-ditch effort(VII). Therefore, the initiative's creators and its entrepreneurial product manager need to work closely and candidly with the regulators.

Finally, since not everyone is equally motivated by ideas, regulators must also progressively establish non-coercive and non-vague incentivization measures(VIII), in order to nudge late adopters to try out the initiative's ideas.

The organization as an initiative incubator

Following these guiding principles puts teams that develop, launch and roll out initiatives on the same solid footing as product-development teams that aim to deliver business-model innovations: the organization therefore becomes an informal incubator of initiatives, similar to the popular model of startup incubators.

Does the perspective of productizing your change initiatives spell the end of implementing improvements by functional groups and internal or external consultants? Hardly. It simply adds another option that allows organizations to circumvent dilemmas regarding involving internal or external consultants, or functional groups, in the development, launch and management of initiatives.

Instead of focusing on organizational belonging, it demands of the organization to provide access to anyone who is able to contribute in applying the principles above. After all, the "initiative startup" should be free to develop its own network of key partners and resources both inside and outside the larger organization, in order to pursue the goal of mind-market domination with its responsively evolving business model. For the sake of knowledge re-use and access to expertise regarding organization-specific facets, this network needs to include functional and subject-matter experts, as well as internal and/or external consultants and other service providers, as needed.

Furthermore: this productization of change and improvement initiatives requires organizations to take an entirely different approach in resourcing and staffing such endeavors, as well as in empowering initiative teams to adopt good entrepreneurial practices and behaviors.

The canary in the coal mine

As the adoption of more entrepreneurial approaches and task ownership is generally seen as a worthwhile endeavor by most companies, the ideas highlighted here can also serve a different purpose: that of a "canary in the coal mine". This means that an organization can experiment with these ideas and models on initiatives as a realistic simulation, before it attempts to put them to practice on actual product-development-and-launch projects with clear-cut financial impact.

Since the adaptation of the ideas to each organization is key in realizing their benefits, the organization can thus evaluate its own capabilities for entrepreneurially innovating on hardware, software and services based on the ease of implementing the principles for the development, launch, roll-out and management of productized initiatives. If things don't work out for an initiative, could an actual new value proposition become successful, even though it depends on the same entrepreneurial mindset?

Change change, and improve improvements

The proliferation of big-batch initiatives means that employees feel overwhelmed by the periodic latest and greatest batch of what is sometimes perceived as corporate propaganda and/or management's "flavor of the year". It also means that the established managerially-minded model of developing, launching and rolling out initiatives has reached a plateau of not-that-high productivity.

Neither the typical organizational setups, nor the mindsets, skills and processes that these setups' participants possess are sufficient for an entrepreneurial and customer-driven development of the initiative to an initially desirable v1.0. Furthermore, the classical approach for the launch and roll-out resembles a technology push, almost always fails to create enthusiasm and market pull for the initiative's ideas, and, more often that not, feeds change fatigue and cynicism in the long run.

Companies looking to reap increased benefits earlier from their initiatives are better served by avoiding the issues above, altogether, through an entirely different approach. They can apply modern entrepreneurial good practices used by startups, in order to co-develop, launch and manage productized initiatives as new business models. These have been proven to work in an established, mature company context. The main condition for success is the presence of an entrepreneurial product manager and senior champions of the initiative who understand the above principles.

Re-frame

Applying the seven guiding principles described in this article helps to re-frame initiatives from single-use projects to comprehensive business models with their own life-cycle, including all phases from idea to launch, as well as all the necessary marketing, evangelization, maintenance, and perhaps even phase-out/revitalization efforts. This makes initiatives amenable to further beneficial ideas from modern product and service development that help cut down waste in the entire life-cycle.

The approach presented here demands from business leaders to empower "internal initiative startups" to pursue successful initiatives in a manner that is contrary to the typical managerial approach to product development, launch and management in which many organizations are still stuck(IX). This also means that less entrepreneurially-minded business leaders may first need to reconsider how they may have been running initiatives as projects in the past.

Yet, this is exactly why productized initiatives can also serve as an early, cost-effective diagnostic for business leaders that intend to pursue new approaches in pursuing innovation entrepreneurially, but are uncertain of the capabilities and readiness of their organization.

Ultimately, the approach presented here is not a panacea, much like all of the topics typically covered in initiatives (even in productized ones) aren't a panacea either. Rather, the approach presented here represents another situation-specific arrow in an organization's quiver of capabilities, and therefore needs to be adapted to its needs. After all, development—even that of initiatives—is fundamentally a search process that can be accelerated, given proper leadership, mindsets, guidance, insights, skills, methods and resources to do so.

Footnotes

(I) Fake "burning platforms" created solely to instill a sense of urgency for the initiative, regardless of actual need, are entirely counter-productive and unnecessary, especially for the approach portrayed here. An initiative formulated and led like an internal startup doesn't run on fear and stress, but on inspiration and vision.

(II) Paradoxically, some companies' oversimplified customer-orientation rhetoric as "the only customer is the one who drives revenues" helps promote this non-customer-oriented view of an initiative's user base. This prevents the initiative's manager from crafting helpful value propositions, since treating the initiative's users as internal customers is frowned upon as transactional, instead of collaborative.

(III) Except if the business outcome was defined as "train everyone", in which case there are bigger problems with target-setting afoot.

(IV) One of the most recently and widely abused buzzwords that means everything to everyone—on par with "lean" and "innovation". Entrepreneurial initiative leaders and change agents should avoid using words that may have been poisoned by years of exaggerated overuse with little substance. Get people enthusiastic on the vision and the benefits—not on self-congratulating arguments such as "it's good because it's innovative".

(V) For lukewarm initiatives, the effort of any approach, including this one, far outweigh the benefits. Ask yourself: if an initiative's outcome is not strongly desirable by at least some stakeholder segments, then why should anyone invest the time and emotional effort to adopt its ideas?

(VI) "Growth hacking is a process of rapid experimentation across marketing channels and product development to identify the most effective, efficient ways to grow a business." (according to Wikipedia.)

(VII) These self-motivated early wins can add credibility to the initiative, if handled properly. However, business leaders should be aware that such self-motivated teams rarely want to make noise about their improvements. Such noise invites management attention and scrutiny by other teams, which are implied by the improvement's success to be not good enough.

(VIII) Coercive measures (e.g., "implement this, or else!") promote pseudo-adherence and lip service. Vague measures (e.g., checking adherence to the initiative's buzzwords in the annual employee satisfaction survey) simply promote cynicism and change fatigue.

(IX) Phase-gate processes, heavy-handed steering boards, endless consensus-seeking, bullet-proofed business cases, pretending to understand the customer, over-engineering solutions "just in case", etc.

Disclaimer: This article was authored in my personal capacity. The opinions and views expressed in this article, as well as the context surrounding them, are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of or bear any relation to my employer's business or context.

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