Locking in Success: The Hidden Pattern Underlying Every Successful Growth Project

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No kidding – This is the information I wish someone would have shared with me early in my leadership career.  It would have saved me a massive amount of time, effort and resources both personally and professionally.

If you’re leading a growth program that has significant new-to-your-company elements, I know the exact path you are going to have to follow.  It turns out that for thousands of years, you and other leaders have had the same journey, and by having foreknowledge of the pattern that you will inevitably follow, you can set much better expectations with the team.  Moreover, having vocabulary to describe it will empower you and your team to have much stronger, specific dialogues with sponsoring management and external partners.

The Hero’s journey is a well understood narrative pattern that is part of every epic story over the history of civilization.  The structure was described in a very thoroughly researched 1949 book by Joseph Campbell titled, the The Hero With a Thousand Faces.  In his book, Joseph carves out the 17 stages of that journey.   For use in growth and innovation, I have built a simplified five-step version of this map that has proven extremely useful in my work with growth team leaders and their sponsors.

Introducing this simplified tool using the familiar story of Star Wars (the first movie), I’ll illustrate the phases and then apply them to the familiar ground of leading a growth team.

Step 1 – We find Luke in a static world on Tatooine, farming with his uncle.  Circumstances conspire to bring him a challenge via the droids appearance on the farm with a hidden message for Obi Wan and the die is cast.  Some foreknowledge of Obi Wan and his past exploits are present, and traveling to meet him, his mentorship is engaged.  Luke gains a superficial understanding of the Force.  An irreversible step is taken in the famous bar scene shoot out, where the stepping off point of phase 2 begins.

Step 2 – Luke leaves the planet on the Millennium Falcon.  This brings all manner of unanticipated adversity and learning on the part of our Hero.  He is given a light saber and starts to practice. He meets Han Solo, rescues the princess, becomes aware of and incarcerated in the Death Star, and nearly meets his demise in the trash compactor.  It’s important to see this adversity through the lens of what he is learning.  For example, he learns to trust the Force, become part of a team, and learn that they can take on the empire and succeed.  Once ejected, the next phase begins.

Step 3 – Now we have all the information and our hero can go to work integrating all he knows in a fully informed way.  The key in this phase is learning that one person and the force can change history.  Luke teams up with Yoda offline, faces his own fear in the cave and becomes a novice Jedi knight.

Step 4 – This phase brings episodic success, with Luke meeting the challenges of the evil emperor and Darth Vader in one of the epic personal battles.  His knowledge of the “Force” is still developing, but he has the minimum he needs.

Step 5 – Having had success in the battles of Step 4, the large scale battle looms in which it’s all on the line, and our team must defeat the fully armed Death Star.  Once completed, there is a high expectation that the team can enter battles and expect to win.

Every successful growth project goes through every one of these five steps on the road to implementation.  

Those who choose the journey are never the same when they complete it.  You can’t skip any of these steps (and if you try, you’ll need to go back and do the work you missed later in the project).  This pathway applies regardless of the project’s size and scope; when you take on a new area with unknowable new challenges, you’ll go down this path.

Now that you are comfortable with the Hero’s Journey at a high level, I’m sure you are beginning to map your own experiences to it in your mind.  In our work as growth leaders, it is very useful to use this framework with easy to understand vocabulary that allows us to provide insight for those who we work for and those who work for and with us.

Putting these five steps to work we have:

1) Strategy/Test

What is it?  This phase begins when you and your team are first called to lead the project and ends with you having a validated hypothesis with specific risks that are well understood and quantified.  You typically have a project sponsor assigned, and perhaps a formal mentor.

Why does it matter?  This is the time to find all the known unknowns that you can expose and make visible.  This is the chance to get rolling and go deep and wide in an atmosphere of relative stability.  You have the chance to deeply understand the problem you are solving for the customer or client (rarely the one that’s assigned).

How do you navigate it?  Cadence and clarity are your friends in this phase.  You need to work quickly, engaging the team and key outsiders to get as much information identified as soon as possible.  You must be ruthless in separating fact from conjecture, and setting expectations in ranges based on objective facts.  Keeping a parking lot of key risks and their implications (numerically and qualitatively) is key here.  It is very important not to get pulled into a hard singular numerical forecast at this stage (even though your CFO will want it badly).

2) Realization

What is it?  Everything done in Strategy and Testing is virtual with the only hard investments being salaries, contractors and travel.  This phase begins when you make your offer to an outside entity which will result in the exchange of either hard compensation or work of substantial value.  Completion of this phase is marked by your ability to have all the new know-how identified to repeatedly deliver value.

Why does it matter?  This is the stage where for the first time, you and your team will discover the unknowable unknowns.  No matter how thorough the work is in the first phase, there are blind spots that every firm has, and the firm has commonly overestimated the ability to bridge them.  The upside is that this is where the real intellectual property and know how is developed.

How do you navigate it?  This phase is frequently the heaviest lift for the growth leader.  You must hold the vision tightly and the pathway loosely to gain all the insight possible.  The best practitioners carefully structure their engagements to learn about and remove risks identified in the Strategy & Testing phase.  This involves keeping the scope tight with very flexible & transparent agreements that allow learning to take place while anticipating that new and potentially challenging information will emerge that both parties cannot anticipate at the outset.  In addition to partner engagement and management, the growth leader also needs to do a superb job of “managing up” to assure management that good progress is being made, and these learnings will ultimately prove very valuable to maintaining exclusivity and retaining the value of the project.

3) Integration

What is it?  In this phase the team takes apart and rebuilds the portions of the product or service that must be realigned to take into account the learning gained in the realization phase.  By integrating this information, a high-functioning tested and vetted value proposition is put together.

Why does it matter?  While this sounds easy, it’s harder than you think.  The team must give up its preconceived notions of what they were doing and update their view with the facts and insights gained during the hard work of realization.  This takes time and leadership to accomplish.

How do you navigate it?  As a team leader, you make the transformation journey first.  You have to put part of your own viewpoint to death and integrate this new information.  Just as Luke had to face himself in the cave, this is the truly transformative part of the journey.  You and the team will not be able to see things the way you did in phase I.

4) Drive

What is it?  The paradigm shift has been made, now it’s time to begin to shape the knowledge of product market fit.  Who is the best fit, and where do we have the best success?  By answering these the team experiences its first real set of financial outcomes and product feedback.

Why does it matter?  By having increasing success in “job shop” mode, production processes and back office support tools are honed, allowing know how and focus to be added to the mix.

How do you navigate it?  Be choosy about how you engage the market.  If you choose to invest with a wide variety of customers, know that the complexity and hand holding needed will take a toll on your team.  Celebrate efforts and success, as your team will be over invested in this stage.

5) Emerge

What is it?  This is where a high confidence, continuous flow of business can be forecasted for the first time.  You know the full complement of who, what and how to engage in developing a full business funnel.  You will use words like optimize, six sigma and continuous improvement.

Why does it matter?  This is the point to truly engage the larger apparatus of the full firm.  Operations leaders, quality leaders, financial and sales will all recognize this as a now familiar entity, and come along and allow the team to scale big and rapidly.

How do you navigate it?  Handover well and systematically.  Much of the know how is going to be resident in your team, so don’t allow them to disappear too quickly.  Do take time for an active action review, so that the hard won know how from phase 2, can become part of the next teams known unknowns in phase 1.  Lastly, celebrate!  You’ll never see the world in the same way again.

Three takeaways:

  • All the Steps are Necessary.  Time and time again I’ve seen teams in mature firms try to speed through the second phase, only to get blind sided down the road in a very painful and expensive way.
  • Plan your Realization phase.  While there are unexpected surprises by definition, they don’t need to be fatal, or leak over to tarnishing the brand for the business.  Good structured trials development, with eyes wide open by your client, can and will yield good data and good will.
  • Reduce Friendly Fire. Many, many projects never get out of the realization phase.  The firm assumes that the team has been incompetent in the planning process and the discovery of unknown unknowns scares leadership and discredits the team leader.

Planning realistically for a phase of realization is the number one way to have a consistent pathway of for these programs (and the careers of those leading them)

I’ve only had time to scratch the surface of richness of insight and planning that this model allows.  When I did a webinar recently on this material, the Q&A approached 50% of our time together.

We’ll come back to some of that in future posts. In the meantime, if you have a specific application you’d like to discuss around a newly formed or perhaps bogged down growth initiative, please send me a note, or give me a call at 847-651-1014.

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