Monday, July 28, 2014

Connections between Strategy and Operations

Virgil R. Carter

Most non-profit organizations have a strategic plan.  Virtually all of these organizations also have an annual operating budget.  Some organizations also develop and use an annual business or operational plan.  But what’s the connection among these?  How can you, your staff and volunteer leaders assess the connection between your strategy and annual operations?

The business press frequently hosts readable articles on the important connection between strategy and operations.  Although written for business, many topics are equally useful for non-profit organizations.  Colorful titles suggest the importance of the issue, including “Putting Leadership Back Into Strategy”, “Mastering the Management System”,  “Five Competitive Forces That Shape Strategy” and the compelling “Innovation Killers:  How Financial Tools Destroy Your Capacity to Do New Things”.  These topics are as common to the non-profit world as the for-profit world.

I have worked with the Balanced Scorecard (BSC) as a tool to identify strategy and successfully link it with operations, enabling an organization to successfully cascade strategy throughout the organization’s operations, using metrics and key initiatives.  One of the compelling concepts of the BSC is “balance”—a balanced approach for each organization.  Using the BSC, it is even possible to embed strategy in annual performance planning and evaluation for staff and volunteers. “Mastering the Management System” by Kaplan and Norton, the Harvard Business School professors who are the founders and developers of the Balanced Scorecard, is one important read for those looking for ways to better connect strategy with operations.

Here’s an important connection between strategy and operations:  “Successful strategy execution has two basic rules:  understand the management cycle that links strategy and operations, and know what tools to apply at each stage of the cycle”, write authors, Norton and Kaplan  

Want to improve the connections between your strategy and operations?  Think about your annual management cycle and how the various elements of your annual cycle can be best integrated with your overall strategy.  How can your annual budgeting cycle be linked to your strategy?  How can your business planning cycle be linked to your strategy?  How can you develop usable metrics and evaluations to assess your operations and the extent to which they support your organization’s strategy?  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Strategy for Unpredictable Times

Virgil Carter

A traditional approach for organizational strategy is based on the view that with sufficient analysis, organizations can make reasonable assumptions about their markets, financial and human resources, technology and customer services, and be successful.  Any unforeseen elements can be addressed through strategy adjustments every few years.  Said differently, strategy for many organizations may be based on internal decisions about what the external world looks like.

But what if the future is unpredictable?  What if an organization’s internal views and preferences just don’t align with the external environment in which the organization finds itself?

Author Lowell L. Bryan, in an article in a recent McKinsey Quarterly, “Just-in-time Strategy for a Turbulent World”, points out that “…globalization and technology are sweeping away the market and industry structures that have historically defined the nature of competition… (making it) impossible to predict, with any confidence, which markets a company will be serving or how its industry will be structured—even in a few years hence”.

Bryan suggests an alternative to traditional organizational strategy:  a “portfolio of initiatives” intended to achieve favorable outcomes for the entire enterprise”.  He writes “usually, these initiatives will be organized around themes focused on achieving particular aspirations, such as increasing the reach of the enterprise, entering a new but related industry, or achieving the greater efficiencies.  Portfolio effects increase the likelihood that some of these aspirations will be achieved even if many others fail”.

According to the author, a successful portfolio-of-initiatives strategy involves “creating enough initiatives offering high returns relative to the risks taken to enable a company to meet its aspirations and outperform the expectations of the markets.  The process requires the CEO and management team to “keep an open mind about where the company may be headed”.  Inherent in this approach is the understanding that “future decisions and future outcomes are likely to vary enormously from initial hypotheses”.  Bryan concludes his article by noting that “Most of the critical decisions involve subjective judgments that, unlike those generated by more deterministic strategies, will be informed by not just the highest-quality staff work but also the knowledge gained as time passes”.

Are you operating in unpredictable times?  Perhaps a portfolio-of-initiative strategy is for you!

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Sweat, Character and Hard Thinking Behind Success

 By Steven M. Worth President, Plexus Consulting Group, LLC

“There is a tide in the affairs of men.  Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…” as Shakespeare noted nearly four hundred years ago; and this has been a popular theme throughout the ages in both popular fiction as well as, in recent years, business management books.  In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points out the interesting statistics behind most outstanding success stories.  His thesis is so compelling that one might be tempted to conclude that “success” is an odds game—the result of being in the right place at the right time and putting in the right amount of prep time—much like the Peter Seller’s movie “Being There” or the Tom Hanks movie ‘Forrest Gump” in which the leading characters of both movies achieve astounding success in life due to well-placed values and being in the right place at the right time.  Cinderella-tales are comforting.  We see justice rendered in otherwise hopeless situations—the way we rejoice in the news of jackpot lottery winners, imagining that with luck this might one day be us….

We see less of this magic in our work as management consultants.  What we see more often is the truism that successful people and organizations are those who do what the less successful don’t do.  By this I mean they do market research, they develop strategic partnerships with outside groups and organizations, they take calculated risks and encourage innovative thinking, they retire programs and organizational structures that have outlived their usefulness, and they focus their resources with laser-like intensity on those programs and projects that are designed to meet current and future market needs.  We also see the hard work, the agony of failure along with the courage to get up and go at it again, and the humility in knowing that no one can do it all or know it all and that success comes in working in harness with others who share your vision.

What we sometimes fail to see behind the news coverage and trappings of success are what Winston Churchill in another time called the “blood, toil, sweat and tears” of success.  This is unfortunate, because so many are ready to throw in the towel at the first sign of an obstacle.  The late psychiatrist and best-selling author Scott Peck noted in his book The Road Less Travelled that the majority of his patients were people who felt they were failures, or who built their lives around avoiding failure without realizing how much easier it would be if they just recognized that difficulty and uncertainty are not signs of failure but rather normal and expected challenges on the path of success.  

Strategic planning consists in part of recognizing which aspects of your environment you control and which represent external trends over which you have no control but which can present opportunities or threats that you should take into account in your planning processes.  As can be seen in our firm’s recent management survey, increasing numbers of managers are using strategic planning as a tool for planning their organization’s success—a tool that is only useful if it is fact-based and backed by a business plan that focuses resources and sets long term and short term measurable goals.  It works, but it does require work and risk and letting go of preconceived notions.  This is the furious peddling that goes on under the graceful swan’s seemingly effortless glide through the water.  


Monday, July 7, 2014

Greening the Economy

By Steven Worth

Though the current economic downturn has negatively affected many, a new industrial sector is on the rise. A study conducted by the Worldwatch Institute and Cornell University Global Labor Institute demonstrates the emergence of a “Green Economy,” one that promises to positively impact the 21st century workforce. Due in part to the United Nation’s Climate convention’s emission reduction targets, this quickly expanding fervor to foster sustainability has already begun to general jobs in developed and developing countries alike.

Recently, the popularity of “Green” jobs has skyrocketed, especially among the younger generation. In hopes that “greening the economy” may be a much-needed stimulus, employers are not only investing in new technologies but also seeking workers with an environmental background in education, training, and technical skills. Jobs in conservation and pollution mitigation are increasing in many states. In 38 states plus the District of Columbia jobs in clean energy outpaced job growth over the last 8 years, according to a recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts Environmental Group. For the past two years, Texas has been the top wind producer in the United States with over 3,953 wind-generated megawatt hours. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) suggests that as many as 8,000 green-collard jobs are on the horizon for Maryland by 2015 as consumers invest in energy efficiency.

The U.S. Department of Education will provide $48.6 billion to encourage states to provide reforms to increase individual pursuit of secondary education, including the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund to support state-level, education budget shortfalls. In California, $10 million in federal stimulus funds—shared by 11 colleges—has created the California Green Jobs Corps to place at-risk young adults into jobs in the states green economy. Also, Michigan’s No Worker Left Behind program, supported by funding from the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), has provided adult education programs for more than 61,434 people since its inception.

As the definition of “green” encompasses countless industries, and the transition of each into a conservational system requires changes in decisions, practices, and behaviors, the need for new workers and ideas has risen to great magnitude. Researchers hope that, by exchanging high capital, low labor investments for low capital, labor-intensive investments, industries may provide more jobs while encouraging the success of the greening campaign.