Work backwards

Projects, initiatives, programmes. These words are used to signal the intention to make changes in the business. To labour outside the bounds of the normal workday. To develop new products or services; to expand into new geographies. To level up with, or to outpace the competition. To improve customer experiences or staff engagement.

They create the momentum essential for commercial progress and, as such, we should look for better ways to plan and execute them. For, if it is true that 50% of strategies fail to be properly executed,  I’d say the failure rate for projects is far higher. And we would all do better if we switched our focus to business impact rather than task completion.

The fixation with task completion begins very early in life, with participation in household chores. Cleaning and resetting the fireplace is a task, as is making your bed. But the outcomes, at the end of the day, maybe a warm place to gather at night, a hot meal to eat and a comfortable night’s sleep.

Formal education encourages the completion fixation, with exercises, tests and exams. Very often our teachers fail to explain how successive layers of educational tasking build into something bigger. So parents and children become locked in a seemingly endless pursuit of certificates and qualifications. And, at the end of that process, is anyone clearer on the end benefit?

Entering the world of work, we are given tasks, partly to test us and partly because there is a workload to be shared. Sometimes we are told the purpose of the task, sometimes not. Disengagement of staff begins with purposeless work.

In the coaching process, we learn to ask three powerful questions. What do you want to achieve? Why is that important? And how will you know when you have achieved it? The first requires no explanation. The second encourages you to think a little more deeply about what you want to do and how it might impact your life, your employees, your customers etc. But the third question is the real key to success because it challenges the coachee to visualise the end result. So this is where the manager or leader needs to invest time and care.

Challenge a team to procure and install a new telephone PABX, and they will tell you that the end result will be the installation of a new telephone PABX.

But if you ask them to visualise an organisation with a  telephone system that works, you will eventually produce more useful insights, such as: ‘We’ll be quicker to help our customers.’

Clear visualisation of the end benefit improves project outcomes.