How Wrong Assumptions Impact your Success

Another failed project.

As statistics prove, the probability is high that you will experience failed projects. About one in three projects fail to achieve the objectives established at the outset.

I see executives regularly believe three assumptions that cause false starts and delays when they begin to implement their strategies or any transformational change.

  1. Executives believe they create strategy that is clear enough to successfully execute.
  2. Executives believe they are the only ones who can lead transformational change.
  3. Executives believe that aligning their immediate teams is only about behavior.

Let’s take these one at a time, debunk them and offer solutions.

Assumption 1: Executives believe they create strategy that is clear enough to successfully execute.

  • Why this assumption is wrong: I’ve seen this proven wrong time and time again, and studies support this. Up to 90% of executives admit their own strategies are not executable.
  • The impact: The leading causes of this failure are lack of clear purpose understood across the leadership team and lack of a clear execution plan that all employees can rally around.
  • How you can correct it: Ensure your purpose is clear and that its outcomes are relatable, especially to the front-line. Be sure your leadership team understands the implications of these outcomes in each of their functions. Build a plan to enroll employees to drive success and long-term sustainability.

Assumption 2: Executives believe they are the only ones who can lead transformational change.

  • Why this assumption is wrong: If you believe that you are the only one who can lead the implementation of your strategy, then you are in for a long, drawn-out implementation. Don’t plan on seeing your family anytime soon.
  • The impact: Besides long hours? With limited ownership, the most critical impact is the lack of sustainability. If you are the only author of the change, and others don’t have an opportunity to enroll, customize and help implement, the probability of it sticking is near zero.
  • How you can correct it: The best leaders take time to establish frameworks so that first-line supervisors and front-line employees lead a bulk of the effort. For supervisors, this might be defining new operational metrics and linkages across the organization. Front-line employees can author new business processes and guidelines to operate in the new environment.

Assumption 3: Executives believe that aligning their immediate teams is only about behavior.

  • Why this assumption is wrong: The most common response I’ve heard about dealing with alignment and resolving cross-functional dysfunction is that leaders think this is the “soft, fluffy stuff.” Far from it. Understanding how a change in one area impacts other areas is essential for success.
  • The impact: When you implement any strategy or any change, there are impacts to the way people work in each function of your organization. Not understanding how this impacts their interdependencies will significantly slow your transformation – or cause it to fail.
  • How you can correct it: Alignment is not just about building greater organizational trust and establishing an environment where employees can engage in healthy debate and challenge one another. It’s also about being crystal clear about up-stream and down-stream impacts that result from the implementation of the change – and planning appropriately for these changes.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


How to Drive a New Culture to Embrace the Digital Age

“Things are moving so fast we can’t keep up!”

Two weeks ago, Macy’s announced that they were falling short of their 2019 financial goals. Sears and JC Penney are closing more stores. Even Walmart and Walgreen’s have announced they will close stores. Brick and mortar are giving way to the digital age. Amazon continues to grow at breakneck speed. Over ten years, Amazon’s revenue has increased about 12 times, whereas Target Stores’ revenue has increased about 1.2 times.

When we look at the retail industry specifically, and others more generally, it’s clear that traditional organizational structures are falling short. They are unable to keep pace with the demands of the digital economy.

The advancement of the Internet over the past two decades has taught us that we must run our organizations differently for our businesses to thrive, and perhaps even survive. This digital transformation is inevitable. To successfully move into the future, leaders need to strike a balance between organizational hierarchy and cross-functional coordination. While there still needs to be accountability for results, organizations need to be able to move faster to achieve these results.

In the late 1800s, Fredrick Taylor pioneered the idea of specialization to speed production. Before this, companies employed craftsman to build one product at a time. This was slow, tedious, and drove enormous variability in the quality of the end products. Taylor pioneered greater efficiency through organizational structure and discipline. No one person produced a product any longer. Through a structured organizational design, different workers had responsibility for small components of the product’s fabrication and construction. In time, this expanded to other parts of the organization. Payroll clerks computed payroll check amounts, and accounting personnel wrote the paychecks. Order-takers received phone calls from customers who wanted to place orders, a warehouse clerk prepared the product for shipment, and a transportation clerk shipped the product to the buyer. All this structure drove phenomenal efficiency. One Fortune 150 company drove $160 million of annual cost out of their supply chain through these efficiencies. Throughout most of the 20th century, organizations employed Taylor’s ideas to drive more and more cost out of their production.

However, this specialization drove hierarchical adherence which in turn promoted cross-functional dysfunction – especially during times of change. If leaders wanted to deploy a new product design or improve business processes across the organization, they ran into huge amounts of resistance from their employees.. This led to lots of failure of organizations to achieve results in desired time frames, if at all.

This means that organizations must reduce their dependence on hierarchical adherence and drive more toward teams that work more effectively cross-functionally. People in these organizations must operate at higher levels of cross-functional collaboration, requiring greater trust, healthy dissent, and greater ability to engage in informal accountability.

This starts at the top. The leader of an organization must be willing to give up traditional command and control in favor of a more facilitative approach. He or she must be passionate about their  organization’s mission, must be humble, and must demonstrate greater trust and willingness to engage in healthy dissent.

In addition to these personal characteristics, these leaders must also:

  1. Hold their leadership team accountable to strip away the armor and work cross-functionally – more than ever. They must model and require more openness, more willingness and a greater propensity to challenge each other.
  2. Promote and model the idea that employees across the organization work together more effectively to drive these outcomes and are willing to challenge each other to do so.

All leaders must give up the old command and control mentality that Fredrick Taylor inspired. They must become more of a coach, helping direct reports, and the entire organization drive to these new behaviors which in turn drives to a greater culture of cross-functional effectiveness.

This article is the subject of my upcoming webinar, How to Drive a New Culture to Embrace the Digital Age, which will be produced and delivered by PMO Strategies. Click here for more info.


Dedicated to your profitable transformation,




How you can implement a strategy with no sponsorship

“No sponsor? Are you kidding me?”

Normally I write this newsletter for executives. This week, my assumption is that you who are reading this are not an executive in your organization and you have recently been tasked to implement a change for which there is weak, or worse, no sponsorship.

Study after study say that lack of active and visible sponsorship is the number one cause of project failure. My experience working with dozens of organizations is similar. Yet even as a consultant, I’ve driven change without having an executive sponsor, so I know it’s possible.

Note – this is not for the faint of heart. Be prepared for long hours, elongated timelines and lots of frustration. But it’s possible. I offer an approach here:

  1. First, be crystal clear on the outcomes. Corporate has just handed down a policy or process change you must implement, but you have no support. Having complete clarity on what this means to you and your team is the critical first step.
  2. Identify the value. Why, why, why? Why is it necessary to do what you’ve been asked to do? How will this improve sales, customer satisfaction, productivity, or other end metrics?
  3. Build a coalition. Based on the nature of the change, you’ll be able to determine who needs to be involved to help make this change happen. Map it out. Identify what you’ll need from each of them. Bring them together. Discuss the impacts. Collectively determine how they can fulfill the work to achieve the change.
  4. Influence your coalition to act. Influence them some more. Then influence them even more. Influence. Ask questions. Don’t advocate. Ask. Influence. When you are done, influence more.
  5. Show progress. Give your coalition, and impacted employees, an opportunity to see and celebrate progress. Even if it is miniscule. What might seem inconsequential to you may not be to them.
  6. Celebrate success. Cake. Ice cream. Hot dogs or caviar. Whatever. Make it fun and defer the success to them. Give them all the credit. All of it.

Can I guarantee your success? No. But if you follow these steps, you’ll increase the probability that you’ll be smiling at the end, and you will develop your leadership skills in the process.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


How one leader drove a major cultural change

Michael Robinson recently concluded his role as a senior executive for a major pharmaceutical company. I had the chance to interview Michael about a massive transformational change that he led.

Steve: What does it mean to you to be a transformational leader?

Michael: It’s three things. One, building a leadership team that aligns on creating a clear and concise vision for the transformation. This vision is used to develop engagement throughout the entire organization. The leadership team must be aligned and committed. Second, an engagement strategy to inspire and align the organization for the transformation. Finally, execution must be realistic, staged and thoughtfully monitored and measured.

Steve: Tell me about a time when this was particularly rewarding for you.

Michael: I lead the creation of a US Medical Affairs team of about 400 employees throughout the United States. About half were located at corporate headquarters, the other half were in the field and mostly working from home. The field medical team was in critical condition as indicated by disastrously low organizational engagement scores. We had to work to rebuild the confidence of this team, and simultaneously demonstrate their value to the rest of the company. Within the first year of this project, we managed to improve engagement scores from 22 to 77 (out of 100). This kind of improvement in employee engagement is remarkable and was extremely rewarding. Unfavorable attrition plummeted from 16% to 2% in two short years.

Steve: How did you clarify the purpose of this transformation?

Michael: The purpose of the transformation was clarified by strategic leadership engagement and a communication plan. Early on, I sat down with every field medical team member to discuss issues and opportunities for the new organization. Through the balance of the first year, I met with most employees. During these meetings I asked open-ended questions and actively listened for feedback. The communication plan strategically linked and reinforced every key message in the vision. In summary, we “lived” the change in every layer of the organization and fostered broad listening and engagement.

Steve: In what ways did you experience cross-functional dysfunction, and how did you address this?

Michael: The most significant manifestation of this occurred in the alignment of the purpose and value of the field medical team throughout my organization and with the commercial team. We met with cross functional colleagues at all levels to understand current and future state, embracing the value of the field team, and giving leaders and employees alike a platform for expressing opinions.

Steve: What cultural attributes made this transformation easier or more difficult?

Michael: We started this project with low employee engagement scores particularly in the category of Trust and Transparency – “can you trust your leader?” When this is your starting point, one first must gain back the trust of the employees. Therefore, we put much effort into our leadership engagement and communication plan. This included multiple channels to listen and communicate WITH employees – leadership forums, group lunches with the leader, employee of the month program, change agent network of employees, newsletters and all employee meetings were live.

Steve: How did you enroll the team into the transformation?

Michael: Employees must first be able to trust leadership to steer them in the right direction. They must also be able to identify with the stated vision for the transformation and understand the “why” behind the work. This begins with the leadership team traveling throughout the various locations of the organization. Once we had the leadership team in place, we took the first six months to develop trust and buy-in. The leadership team gradually came together around a common vision, and we practiced healthy conflict to achieve solid buy-in and alignment to the vision. This was critical to the success of the transformation and was time well spent. We also developed a Change Agent Network of selected U.S. employees that independently identified and developed projects that were in line with the overall vision and were important to the employees. Organized in this manner, employees collectively shared feedback and identified workstreams to execute at the front-line to drive the transformation.

Steve: Outside of your immediate function, what other organizational challenges did you face?

Michael: Medical Affairs was new to the company. Therefore, the value the Medical Affairs team could bring was poorly understood. To address this, the project began with top senior cross-functional leadership aligned to the vision and goals for the transformation. We reviewed progress frequently, and cross-functional teams were brought together to understand each other’s roles and the ways they work together. This was done in large group and small group settings with senior leadership observing the progress firsthand.

Steve: How did you become more of a coach?

Michael: The most significant way in which I became more of a coach was in encouraging and managing healthy conflict. The leadership team must come together as a team and align as a team. In order to successfully do that, we had to engage in healthy conflict and disagreement. This took several months to accomplish and was frequently re-visited. Also, I am a firm believer in the visibility of the leader. I had to be approachable and listen to all employees. I made myself available to engage employees at all levels.

Steve: If you could give one piece of advice, what would it be?

Michael: Listen. Listen. And listen. Any successful transformation project must have the trust and engagement of the employees in the organization. Trust only begins if the leader is willing to actively listen. The leader must bring the organization along in the transformation. Pushing out a vision that the leader wants to accomplish without first having listened to and engaged with the employees extensively, is doomed to fail or not stick long-term. Take the time upfront, listen to the needs of the organization.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


How passive resistance slows your transformation

“Steven! The basement is flooded,” my wife cried.

Every year our lawn care service cleans the eave troughs at our farmhouse in Michigan. The proof that they have done a great job is a dry basement.

A few days ago, a heavy thunderstorm pummeled us with a downpour. Imagine my surprise as I watched the eave troughs all around the house overflow until the storm was over. The next morning, we found pools of water in our normally dry basement. Determined to restore my basement to dryness, my wife and I donned our work clothes, and dragged a ladder and garden hose out of the barn. Within minutes we discovered that although the eaves troughs were clear, the down spouts were plugged with years of debris. After two hours of disassembling, clearing and reinstalling the downspouts we proclaimed the project complete. Water flowed freely.

Transformational change is like rainwater. Your team will take the path of least resistance to achieve its goals – or attempt to. It’s often those unseen obstructions that create resistance for you to achieve your goals.

Like those downspouts, you might need to proactively seek out and address areas of resistance in your organization. Metaphorically speaking, you might need to poke around a bit to find out where there is resistance, why it exists, and take steps to adapt to the risks it manifests.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,




Why we need greater focus on integrity

Every day it seems we read about integrity failures in leadership. Wells Fargo, Boeing, United Airlines, Tesla, college admission scandals, sex scandals, coverups and more. People lose faith in organizations when their leaders misbehave. Or worse yet, cover up their misbehavior.

On a personal level, I’m concerned about how this affects our children and grandchildren. Are we teaching them that reduced integrity is okay?

And on a professional level, I’m concerned that managers are racing to the bottom in a world that seems to give greater attention to the integrity deficit culture we’ve produced.

According to Merriam-Webster, integrity is defined as a “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values; incorruptibility.”

Yet volumes have been written about how good leaders step up their personal game, ensuring they have a good moral code. This in turn demonstrates to their followers that they are committed not just to the transformation at hand but doing so in a manner that is completely above board and preserves the dignity of all of those involved – even themselves.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


How one family is helping to transform a community

Rick Moersch is the owner of Moersch Hospitality Group, whose brand names include Tabor Hill, Round Barn and Free Run. Located in and near the village of Baroda in southwest Michigan, Rick’s enterprises are great destinations. Just 90 minutes from downtown Chicago, the wine trail covers many wineries, breweries and several restaurants for you to spend a day, a weekend or longer.

Steve: Tell me how you came to start your business?

Rick: I was born and raised in Flint, Michigan. I came to this area to teach school. I taught school for seven years in Berrien Springs. Most of my students lived on farms. I thought I would love being able to make my living on the land. I was struck by the area, mostly agricultural, with tons of potential. I thought, gosh, if we don’t do something to bring notoriety, we’ll just become a bedroom community for Chicago and other nearby cities.

Steve: What was the transformation you led?

Rick: My work has been all about converting an agricultural, blue collar community into a destination for America. Those students, they could play sports, work on the family farm and their future was to work in a local small manufacturing firm. I wanted to provide more than this. The combination of great potential with a great work force seemed unbeatable.

Steve: How did you clarify the purpose of your transformation?

Rick: Invariably as an entrepreneur, I’m in sales. I’m selling an idea or a dream. I remember once early on I was standing in front of that old, rusty barn, with an old tractor sitting in the background. I was convincing a banker that he ought to lend me money to pursue my dream. He asked, “What else do you have besides old equipment and over-inflated land values?” It was tough. I had a dream. A vision. A purpose. Over time I found lenders who would help, but it took a great deal of time and sweat equity.

Steve: How did you enroll others in the transformation?

Rick: In the early years, I created alliances with Tabor Hill, Fenn Valley and international organizations. We started out by grafting and selling grape vines. In those first few years we sold over a million vines. We did this to fund our ongoing vineyard development. I worked 14-20 hours a day for 20 years.

Now we are up to 230 employees. Excitement rubs off. When employees see you working hard, they dive in. I work to balance empathy with high expectations. It’s a challenge. It’s hard work, low pay and few benefits, but employees receive one heck of an education.

Steve: Please comment on organizational challenges you faced.

Rick: First, I found that I needed to surround myself with people I can trust. We worked together realizing that we had to think ahead, take risk, and not penalize each other for making mistakes. You must be a team player, especially as the leader. Growing this business from one employee to 230 requires a great deal of self-reflection. After a while, you lose the ability to control everything directly. You need to be comfortable with this.

Steve: How did you become more of a coach?

Rick: It all started back when I was teaching. I was also a football and tennis coach. You have ideas on how people ought to perform, and you help people learn from experience and achieve success. Experience comes when things don’t go your way. Plus, you must keep reading, talking, asking questions and learning. For example, look at Europe and what’s happening there – we learned how to leverage best practices.

Steve: If you could give one piece of advice, what would it be?

Rick: I live by this Buddhist quote: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
You must keep a beginner’s mind.

How poor character hampers success

Last week I wrote about the integrity deficit challenging my readers to think about where they stand on the integrity scale. Today, let’s talk more broadly about character.

In the last several months I’ve interacted with three organizational leaders who have what I call character deficit. Like integrity deficit – which focuses on basic issues of trust or lack thereof – character deficit looks at elements of character that are somehow missing and disenfranchises their leadership teams and employees.

I experienced these behaviors with these three leaders:

  • Unwilling to listen to the needs of others and more concerned with making their own pronouncements, which led to low enrollment and dragging out a transformation timeline much further that was productive and costing the organization millions of dollars.
  • Over anxiousness about achieving their own goals and not effectively collaborating with others with whom they had an interdependent relationship, leading to disenfranchised employees and again, elongated timelines.
  • Committing to assist team members then not following through, leading to frustration, stagnation and resignation – literally and on-the-job (on-the-job resignation simply means employees stay on the job, but don’t engage).

In all three cases, these poor behaviors drove lower enrollment of team members and employees to their respective transformations. In all three cases, the common theme is self-importance or selfishness.

Successful leaders of transformational change realize that they don’t have all the answers. They drive enrollment by asking questions and following through. They support their leadership teams needs while providing direction, but not in a dogmatic way. Basically, they are humble, and they are selfless.

Call to action. I challenge you to take some time and truly be introspective about your leadership. A great guide is Patrick Lencioni’s The Ideal Team Player. He promotes three characteristics of team players that every leader will benefit from.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


How Purpose Motivates more than Money


Free college! This is one of the messages of many of those in the running to become the next president of the United States.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal describes successes Kalamazoo, Michigan, has had with a privately funded paid tuition program. The program, Kalamazoo Promise, began in 2005. This provides enough time to evaluate both successes and failures. On the upside the city has helped 5,735 students achieve higher education than they might not otherwise have had. On the downside, there is also a high rate of dropouts from the program. The most often cited reasons are lack of family support and lack of purpose.

Some students who participated in the program experienced depression and ultimately dropped out. As researchers explored this, they found that these students took advantage of the program because it was available and because they were taught to “…’go to college, go to college,’ and not ‘go to college for this reason.’”

This is a relevant example of how leading with clear purpose overshadows any ability you might have to throw more money at your transformation.

If you are leading a transformation, and your employees cannot relate to the outcomes, or don’t understand the purpose, they’ll “drop out.”

There needs to be a compelling reason for your employees to gain the desire to follow you on your transformation journey. And this reason needs to resonate with them. Even if you pay your employees more money, the still won’t go on the ride.

Call to action: When starting your next transformation, be absolutely crystal clear on your purpose. Be sure employees understand the outcomes and understand the value of the transformation in terms that resonate with them. Be inspirational. Be excited about the outcomes you want to achieve. Show them the way.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,