We’ve all been in that meeting.
You know, the one where you’re planning the upcoming year? Inevitably, the operating team wants to take on the closer-in, surer return programs — the low-hanging fruit.
But as the senior leader in the room, your intuition is telling you to sponsor one of the projects that has more ‘hair’ on it. These breakout projects hold the promise of significantly increasing the value of your entire enterprise. Think Andy Grove deciding to get out of the memory business and into the microprocessor business — and Intel as we know it being born. You often find these projects in the Growth Zone, (for more tips on making the Growth Zone work for you, see the sidebar at right).
Now that the meeting is over, the flip charts transcribed and the notes circulated — it’s time to take action.
Early in my career, I had the opportunity to build and lead one of these breakout project teams. Today I’m going to share some insights and lessons learned from the trenches.
For a project to be successful, you’ll need to answer these two questions:
- How do you get the organization to embrace these higher risk programs?
- Just as importantly, how do you get your top people to take part?
It’s difficult to drag an organization out of its well-established groove. To do this you’ll need a special tool.
What is that special tool? The kedge anchor.
Find the Kedge
In the old days before steam power was invented, sailing ships used kedge anchors to help maneuver when wind was low or the passage very narrow.
The kedge anchor was lighter than the main anchor, but it still took a team of sailors to handle them. To deploy the kedge anchor, a long boat with a bunch of strapping young sailors was sent out with the kedge and rowed ahead as far as the anchor line would allow. They would then drop it, so that a crew on the ship could use the capstan (a winch that ships use to haul in the anchor with great leverage) to pull the ship ahead.
For a breakout project, you need the organizational equivalent of a kedge anchor to pull the team ahead.
Get a small subset of the people who were at the meeting and commission a three-page project charter. I would track progress daily to keep a sense of intensity. This document needs to have the following key elements:
- What is the key insight that leads us to this investment?
- What exactly do we need to achieve to receive the benefit?
- When does it need to be done?
- What does done entail and who will be the judge?
- What resources are we willing to place in service of this project? Perhaps this is accelerated research that needs to be productized? A new channel for our existing product?
- What is the business case for this investment? What is the downside risk of not making the investment?
- Whose cooperation do we need to get this done? Do we need a joint development agreement with a key customer?
- What are the upsides for all the stakeholders if we are successful?
There’s one last question – and it’s really important.
Put yourself back in your middle management days and think about the charter very objectively.
- Would you bet your next career cycle on this project?
If the answer to the last question is no, then its time to re-examine the project — or your commitment to it.
Time to load the long boat
You have your charter in hand and the senior team believes in it. Now its time to put the list of high performers that HR has been talking about to work.
Leadership of these efforts is a great developmental tool for up-and-coming leaders in the organization. You’re looking for someone with real leadership skills — not just vertically, but horizontally as well.
When considering a breakout team leader, ask yourself:
- Can he or she influence their peers to put their best and brightest in service of the overall objective? If they need to depend on the senior team to constantly intervene on their behalf, they are not ready yet.
- Is this person promotable in the time frame of interest?
- Do they have the functional and operational skills that this program calls for?
- Can they manage up as well as sideways and down? Does this person create simplicity from complexity, bringing you actionable suggestions?
Time to pull the ship
First, have a conversation with the leader and make sure you have complete buy-in. Make it clear what the senior team’s commitment is to this breakout project, and demonstrate your commitment level on an on-going basis.
Now, send the team out and have them plant the anchor. It’s important to personally attend the reviews and make sure your staff is there as well. The most common way these projects get torpedoed is because one member of senior leadership who is not really on board will skip these meetings, and then poke holes in the project later. Better to have everyone there and address concerns up front.
The resistance will be much higher than you and the team will expect. It will take constant vigilance to make sure that the anchor doesn’t slip and the capstan keeps turning.
The good news is once the team is able to reposition itself using these tools once, and see the organizational and personal benefits (you did reward the risk takers, right?), the next one will be a little easier and your culture will be less static.
Would you like to be asked to lead a breakout project?
Stay tuned for part II, how to position your self to be a breakout ninja.