Tackling a breakout project? Find a kedge anchor

© Bruce Guenter

We’ve all been in that meeting.

You know, the one where you’re planning the upcoming year and, inevitably, the operating team wants to take on programs with the highest chance of return  — 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. Why?  Because 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, download the free ebook).

Getting Started

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:

  1. How do you get the organization to embrace these higher risk programs?
  2. 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 was very narrow.

The kedge anchor was lighter than the main anchor, but it still took a team of sailors to handle it. To deploy the kedge anchor, a long boat with a bunch of strapping young sailors was sent out to row ahead as far as the anchor line would allow. They would then drop the kedge anchor so that the crew on the ship could use the capstan (a winch to haul in the anchor with great leverage) to pull the ship forward.

For a breakout project, you need the organizational equivalent of a kedge anchor to pull the team ahead.

To get started, you’ll want to gather a small subset of people who were at the meeting and commission a three-page project charter. I then suggest tracking progress daily to keep a sense of intensity. This document needs to answer the following key questions:

  • 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 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 it’s 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, it’s 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.  Keep in mind, 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 then demonstrate your commitment level on an ongoing 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 when one member of senior leadership, who is not really on board, skips these meetings and then pokes holes in the project later. It’s better to have everyone there so you can 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 that once the team is able to reposition itself using these tools once, and they 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.

For information on how to position yourself to be a breakout ninja, see the follow-up piece, here.

Would you like to be asked to lead a breakout project?

I welcome your thoughts.  Please shoot me an email or connect with me on Twitter.

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