Over time, individual battles will be won or lost: the enduring victory that drives further success is in the new ways of working together
In the 1990s on the eve of the browser wars, Bill Gates fired up histroops for the battle ahead by setting them a clear and simple goal: "Beat Netscape".
The rest is history, but victory might have been far less assured had he instead told staff to "Develop and sell the most successful Web browser".
"Beat Netscape." "Develop and sell the most successful Web browser." One externally focused, one internally focused. Sure, Microsoft could only hope to win its external battle against Netscape with internal efforts and changes, but had staff seen the challenge as purely an internal matter, their efforts might have been radically less effective. Internal conflict would more likely have arisen, and cries of: "It's the developer's fault", "It's the sales team's fault" or "That's not what I call success" might have been expected to ring throughout the organization.
Instead, the goal - "Beat Netscape" - was so clear and simple that it not only put everyone on the same page but also made sure they knew exactly how to assess their efforts against this shared goal. Instead of employee energy being dissipated by internal conflicts, the battle became about one thing only: realizing value in the marketplace.
For Microsoft then, beating Netscape became a "must-win battle", one of the critical challenges that could make or break the business. And a book from Wharton School Publishing in the US, Must-Win Battles: How To Win Them, Again And Again, asserts every organization can lift its chances of achieving the kind of enduring victory that drives further success by identifying the three to five must-win battles (MWBs) that should consume the vast majority of its focus and energies.
Must-Win Battles outlines ways to identify and agree on the critical challenges that can make or break a business, and helps senior managers to harness their people and resources to achieve those goals by combining strategic focus with emotional commitment. The authors say must-win battles are about making strategy and building the team.
And they say their message is one that CIOs should embrace. Most IT organizations work in broad, extended networks involving both suppliers and customers, they point out. CIOs also have an intimate understanding of corporate processes, and how to enhance them. Clearly no self-respecting CIO these days would dream of divorcing the business strategy from the IT, but the authors make clear that every battle defined within individual business units should be aligned with, and support, the battles that the company is trying to win. Indeed, they say every business unit leader should define his or her own three to five MWBs, and stick with them.
Even where IT is largely an enabler of the business, rather than a market-facing function, they say its critical projects, critical actions and critical behaviours must be dedicated to supporting the efforts of the rest of the organization to win the battles so defined.
Most organizations try to juggle far too many initiatives, one of the book's co-authors, consultant Tracey Keys, told CIO magazine. For instance in one organization where she worked there were hundreds of initiatives, including IT projects, on the go. "What was the focus? Getting down to three to five battles is about focus, about knowing where you are going and getting people aligned behind these battles," she says.
"Defining your must-win battles in external terms helps employees see the path - from what they're doing [now] to the end success in the marketplace - and that's useful in motivating people, because they can see where they're making the difference. They know it's not going to be a program that just sits on someone's desk."
Contrast that with the reality of most organizations today, where initiative follows initiative until all focus and energy is lost, and every CXO has his or her own ideas about the key battlegrounds.
Worse, in most organizations each initiative receives only half-hearted attention, and those that really deserve a high level of commitment do not get it. As one executive stated: "Until we have our own agenda, we are at the mercy of others and their agendas. It is easier to say 'No' to a continuing stream of requests when we have a clear understanding of what we will lose by diverting our resources and attention."
Limiting the number of initiatives can clarify the situation enormously, Keys believes. Three to five battles does not mean three to five projects, and the contribution from each business unit to the overarching battle will differ. You may even have many more projects under way than battles, Keys says. But defining your battles first means you have realistic criteria for measuring each project against that overarching "battle" to ensure alignment with the objectives of the organization, and helps to make measurements more meaningful.
In addition, limiting the number of activities that you engage allows you to direct greater resources towards them, she says.
"I'll give you a systems context example [from a company I consulted to]," Keys says. "They had different parts of the organization wanting to implement their own versions of content management systems, each developed specifically for their needs. And basically we said: 'Yes, we do need a content management system but we need one that will talk across the business if the business is going to become more integrated'. At the end of the day, that was a hard position to push through, but it was about focusing on what needed to be done and actually focusing on what the business needed, not what the individual parts of it wanted."
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