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8 July 2009 • 7:00 am

Taking the Initiative on Initiatives

Expert facilitators of strategy and change programs understand that an important result of the process of strategic management is the concept of the initiative. We use the word initiative perhaps a bit too casually, for the concept of the initiative is the essential ingredient for accomplishing change. But, like many of the terms we use, the definition of an initiative is not self-evident, and means different things to different people.

An easy way to think about initiatives is that they represent a minority subset of all of the work done within the organization. The majority of all work falls into the subset of process; activity that is accomplished to sustain the current value creation of the organization. Process activity tends to be repeatable (it is done over and over), perpetual (it is expected to be done implicitly until an explicit change is made), and mandatory (it must be done).

By contrast, initiative activity is discretionary (it is done as the result of an explicit decision), limited-term (it will end when a specified outcome is reached or it is cancelled), and unique (it is only done once). Many people think of projects and initiatives as synonymous, but it is more useful to think of an initiative as a grouping of one or more related projects.

Ideally, all work activity in an organization could be classified as either process or initiative. Both types of activities consume financial resources, explicit spending, or implicitly through the allocation of peoples’ time. In reality, people engaging in work may not know whether their work is process or initiative.

Initiative activity can be further classified as strategic or non-strategic. To be strategic, an initiative’s intended outcome must change the way in which the organization creates value. Non-strategic initiatives generally are intended to optimize the way in which the organization delivers under its current value proposition, or simply to accomplish an immediate operational objective.

With these definitions in force, there is much to be learned by examining your organization’s overall activities. To what extent¬†are the organization’s leaders aware of initiative activity? What is the ratio of resources devoted to process vs. initiative activity? What share of initiative activity is strategic?¬† Is there any collective understanding of all initiative activity; can anyone see everything that is being done by choice?

This last question is critical. Each activity consumes precious time and financial resources. In the aggregate, initiative activity should be viewed as a portfolio of the organization’s investment of discretionary resources. Portfolio management of initiatives ensures that those precious resources are being invested in opportunities that are aligned with the leadership’s intent for change in the organization.

In those enterprises where the strategic management process is immature or non-existent, new initiatives (new investment of resources) are undertaken as a result of delegated management discretion, which means relying on locally-interpreted goals. Without effective coordination, the result is a portfolio of initiatives that are unaligned with strategy, initiatives that duplicate one another or work at cross purposes, and an inventory that is larger than the organization’s capacity to accomplish them. Because starting a new initiative is usually easy, members of the organization simply have more to work on than they have hours in the day. In organizations with effective strategic management, decisions to undertake initiatives are made more carefully, and in the context of the change agenda.

When facilitating strategic management with a new client, one of my most productive efforts is to simply talk with people in the organization. A more revealing question than “What is your job?” is “What are you actually working on?” The answers say a lot about the strategic management process.

What are you actually working on? How much of your time is spent in process vs. initiative activity? Do you know how your initiatives fit into the overall strategy for the enterprise? Please offer your comments and insights below.

In future posts, we’ll look at practical approaches to managing initiatives in the enterprise.

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