There is a saying called Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands to consume the available resources.” Which is to say all of your team will always be busy and all of your budget spent. The question is how do you ever do something new? Starting anything means stopping something, and that is often a lot harder than it sounds.
In our strategy work, we often hear leaders bemoan the difficulty of freeing up resources or concentrating efforts on fewer but more important things. The status quo has a healthy immune system, and the “corporate antibodies” swiftly move in on attempts to make way for the new.
If you don’t recognize this dynamic in your own organization, ask yourself if the following are true:
- No one knows when, by who, or why some of your programs were started in the first place.
- None of your programs have ever missed their goals (possibly because they never had any).
- The actual words “but we’ve always done it that way” are often a winning business case.
If you answered yes to any of the above, it may be time for you to start stopping some things.
Jazz great John Coltrane was known for his long-winded saxophone solos. Criticized for this by Miles Davis, Coltrane said: “I just don’t know how to stop.” To which Miles replied, “Try taking the horn out of your mouth”!
It’s a funny quote, but also insightful, because it reframes the problem as something (in this case pretty obvious) that can actually be solved. Organizations that succeed with strategic priorities do the same, by reframing from activities to outcomes. In other words, asking not “why are we doing X, Y or Z?” but “how do X, Y, and Z create the strategic outcomes we want?” Strategic outcomes are not measured in terms of work that got done, but measurable change in the business or the world that moves the strategy forward.
One way we encourage folks to look at outcomes is on a “triple bottom line.” The first is Impact – how big of a splash does something in the market, the community, etc. make. The second is Alignment — how closely tied something is to the top-level strategies of the organization. The third is Value – how much it delivers by way of revenue or other quantifiable contributions. The key to success is to agree on what the bottom lines are before you make resource decisions.
In the words of the great philosopher Meghan Trainor: “Thank you in advance, I don’t want to dance. (Nope).” Organizations that can focus their strategic planning on the outcomes they want and how they will measure them, instead of all the things they want to do, have a much clearer view of things that are not delivering for them and a much easier time saying no to them.
One large organization we worked with reduced their dashboard goals over time from more than thirty down to six. By linking the budget process more and more to the six top-level goals, things that were not impactful, aligned, and/or valuable were not resourced, not as a case-by-case argument but as a matter of principles which were established in advance.
It is not easy. The example above profited from strong leadership, board partnership, and sustained planning discipline. The fruits of this effort are a powerful focus on things that really matter, the ability to shift resources among them as things change, and a level of organizational clarity that keeps everyone aligned when change happens.
And that is something worth stopping for.