Strategic Projects | How to Choose Your Big Rocks

Strategic Projects – How to Choose Your Big Rocks

Swinging into action without doing a proper, disciplined analysis is like starting to cook without knowing who is coming to your dinner party or without planning the menu. That’s how many companies do strategy: They start doing without analyzing, thinking, and planning. When you do that, you lack discipline and focus, which usually means that you go after any opportunity that presents itself.

I call that “chasing after squirrels”: Ah, there’s a squirrel! Let’s go after it! Oops, there’s another that looks better. Let’s go after that one! Wait, look over there, that one looks even better!

Another common trap with the “just do it” approach is that business leaders can get so focused on improving “what is” (the current business model), that they fail to take action to “create what will be” (to address industry changes and build capabilities for the future).

You shouldn’t do that. You’ve set the context with your BHAG and the disciplined strategic thought process you have been through. You’ve chosen your 3 to 5 Year Strategic Moves, the things you need to get done within the next three to five years that will move you toward your BHAG. You’ve tested your ideas with a SWOT analysis to define your current situation in the context of your strategic direction.

Your BHAG and your 3 to 5 Year Strategic Moves are the lenses you look through with your long-term eye. Remember what Professor Kotler says about that:

“Long term is NOT about performance improvement. It is about forgetting the past and reshaping the business to compete more effectively in the future. Often, this demands bold, disruptive strategic moves away from the present to reshape the company for future success.”

Your SWOT analysis is the lens you look through with the short-term eye that Professor Kotler talks about:

“Short term is about projects related to improving the current core business, and meeting the needs of today’s target customers.”

Now you need to use both eyes as you decide what to do in the next quarter. Just as in real life, you have a richer, more nuanced view of the world with two eyes. This is also the start of a process you will do every quarter. You’ll analyze and update your SWOT analysis, which will always be slightly different than it was the quarter before. Then you’ll decide your “Strategic Projects” that you need to accomplish in the next quarter to move your business forward.

Take a look at your SWOT analysis again. You’ve created a list of five items for each element. The items on each list are ranked in priority order. Your current SWOT analysis is like a snapshot of your current competitive situation. You want to work on the things that are at the top of the lists.

In the next quarter, you want to achieve things that will address the key items listed in your SWOT analysis, so that at the end of the quarter, when you redo your SWOT analysis, your situation has improved and you have moved your business forward in your chosen strategic direction. Here’s how to think about each element:

Leverage or build on your Strengths. 

You might want to build on the things you do well, that give you a competitive advantage and that will move you toward your goal. For example, if you’re a software developer with a strength in developing mobile apps for financial firms, you might hire more programmers with the skills you need.

Fix or improve the areas where you are Weak. 

By the end of the quarter, you might want to eliminate a weakness or reduce its impact and drag on your progress. For example, if your cash flow is weak, you might work to reduce your Days Sales Outstanding.

Take advantage of Opportunities. 

You’ve identified areas where you can make a major move. You might want to seize one of those opportunities. For example, you might be able to form a partnership with a non-competing company serving the same target market customers that can give you access to their distribution channel.

Mitigate or reduce any Threats. 

You might want to take action to reduce or mitigate a threat. If a big-box store is expanding into your trading area, you might develop new personalized services that deliver value to your customers. Or, if you’re at risk of a power outage fouling up your production schedule, you might invest in backup power generating systems.

The Rule of Three.

You are going to focus on no more than three Strategic Projects to work on in the next three months. Each project should be about addressing an issue in your SWOT analysis and moving you in the direction of your 3 to 5 Year Strategic Moves and toward your BHAG. Use both your short-term eye and long-term eye so your projects achieve a balance between “improving what is” with “creating what will be.”

Start with your most important issue. What should you do this quarter to move things forward? We call those things “projects” because they will take several weeks/months to complete.

Most businesses try to do too much, and, as a result, they execute poorly. Your challenge is to identify no more than three issues to address this quarter and define the specific Strategic Projects that will move your company forward. Describe the scope of each project in detail. What will you need to do and achieve to make that project a success? What are the important milestones?

Once you have your projects defined, it’s time to do two things: First, you will structure your projects in ways that make the project easy to understand and more likely to succeed. Second, you’ll test these goals against the reality of doing business every day.

Set SMART Goals.

I like the SMART acronym for describing how to structure goals of all kinds, but there are literally dozens of versions of this acronym. One researcher examined 40 websites that used the acronym SMART to define the criteria for goals. When he looked at all the words they used for the different letters, he calculated that it was possible to form almost 9,000 versions of the SMART acronym. The version I use has worked for me and companies I’ve worked with. It should work for you, too.

In my SMART acronym, the letters stand for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Here’s more about what each letter means:

Specific – You need to state your goal so it is obvious to everyone exactly what needs to be done.

Measurable – It should be obvious when you achieve the goal.

Achievable – You should be able to accomplish the goal by the due date. If you can’t, you should probably scale down the goal for this quarter.

Relevant – This is the part of the acronym I see most people get wrong, and it is probably the most important. Many people incorrectly say that “R is Realistic,” but, to me, that means exactly the same thing as Achievable. Relevance is what we are looking for here. Is this project relevant? Does it address the current reality listed in your SWOT analysis, and does it move you in the direction of your 3 to 5 Year Strategic Moves and toward your BHAG? A good project should be a short-term improvement, but it should also help you create the future. It must be relevant to your chosen strategy.

Time-bound – The difference between a dream and a goal is that a goal has a deadline.

The Champagne Test.

Each of your Strategic Projects should pass what I call the “Champagne test.” That means that it should be so clearly stated that everyone will know when you’ve achieved the goal and when it’s time to pop the cork and celebrate. It’s important to celebrate the short-term milestones that you reach every quarter so your people get to experience the thrill of achievement and be acknowledged for it in some way. That helps you maintain momentum and build enthusiasm.

It’s like a series of quarterly sprints. You choose the direction you are going to sprint toward your 3 to 5 Year Strategic Moves and BHAG. You set a finish line that you can clearly see. Three months is close enough to see the finish line, yet still enough time to get some significant things accomplished. You put your head down and run. When you get to the end of the quarter, you pick your head up to celebrate how far you have come, assess the current reality again, choose some new short-term Strategic Projects, then put your head down and sprint off again.

Before you go on, take a moment to clearly define the top three Strategic Projects that you can implement within the next three months to address the key issues you have identified in your SWOT analysis.

Some of the projects may take longer than a single quarter to fully implement. If that is the case, define the milestone you intend to reach by the quarter’s end. Create a specific destination point that you need to reach in 12 weeks’ time, and make sure it passes the Champagne test.

Get Real.

You need to be realistic at this point and set yourself up for success. Make sure that you can reach the goals you set in the three months’ time that you have.

At this point, many companies write a Strategic Project that ticks off all the letters of the SMART acronym, except for Achievable. They create expectations that would be fine if all they had to do was work on the project, but they don’t. Neither do you. You’ve got a business to run. They fall victim to the “planning fallacy“.

The idea is to balance optimism with realism. Remember that you still have to do everything that makes your business go. You have to make sales and fulfill contracts and collect money. You need to do human resources and regulatory paperwork and your taxes. None of that goes away.

Not only that, there will be surprises, things you can’t anticipate. “Stuff” happens! Fires will break out, and someone will have to spend time and effort fighting them. That’s just the way it is in life and in business.

I’ve found that it makes sense to set aside one half-day every week when you do nothing but work on your Strategic Projects. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s realistic for most people in most companies as they try to balance strategic execution with running the business as usual. The trick is making sure you do something every week to make progress on what’s important.

Take a moment to look at your Strategic Projects again. Will you be able to achieve the milestones you have set by having everyone who is involved working a half-day per week to move them forward? If the answer is no, adjust your expectations and milestone targets to reflect reality. When in doubt, choose to make the project more achievable rather than more ambitious.

Since you won’t have a lot of time to devote to your projects, it’s especially important that you make some progress every week. Here’s how to make sure that happens. This is a powerful technique that I learned from Stephen Covey.

Big Rocks.

He told a story he called “The Big Rocks of Life.” He also demonstrated this principle in his programs. You can probably find a video of it on YouTube if you search for “Big Rocks” and “Covey.” I urge you to do that because the demonstration is so powerful. For now, though, you’ll have to make do with my explanation:

The important things in life and work are your big rocks. You also have other things you have to do every week; think of them as gravel. And there are the little things you have to do every day. That’s sand. Now imagine that your challenge is to put as much as possible into a bucket.

Most of us – naturally, it seems – put the sand (daily work) and the gravel (weekly and monthly work) into the container first. We schedule all our routine work and then try to fit the important project work (the big rocks) into an already full schedule. It never works. It seems as though there’s never enough time.

The solution is to put the big rocks in first. That’s the only way you’ll make sure they get into your bucket. You have to schedule the important things first and then fill in around them.

Schedule your half-day of Strategic Project work in your calendar first. If you use an automated calendar, you may want to make it a recurring appointment. We all know that there will be weeks when you have to reschedule, but that’s the way it is. When that happens, you’ll know you’re making an exception in scheduling your project work for a different time.

You must have someone accountable for every Strategic Project. Single-point accountability is crucial. If more than one person is accountable, then no one is accountable. Someone’s ass must be on the line to make sure it gets done. If that’s you, it does not mean you have to do all the work yourself – it means you take accountability to manage the project to success.

Here are the things a project leader should do in order to get the job done. My clients have proven that it works:

  • Meet with each individual who is involved with the project on a weekly basis.
  • Review the current status of each person’s tasks.
  • Make a plan for catching up or getting help if necessary.
  • Make sure that each person’s number-one task (or next step) to move the project forward each week is agreed and kept visible.
  • Report to the company leadership every week on project status and take full accountability for RESULTS.

As part of the cadence of strategy execution, get used to this: Every quarter, you’ll redo your SWOT analysis and then choose your Strategic Projects for the next three months. The key to executing your 3 to 5 Year Strategic Moves, achieving your BHAG, and getting to the top of your mountain is to continue to assess your situation and make progress every quarter.

Excerpted from the book: Business Execution for RESULTS, by Stephen Lynch


Until next time…