Thursday, August 27, 2009

Instituting Excellence - Part 2

In the previous article I talked about how to ensure that you have the best possible people on your team, and discussed the three key steps in that process: selection, training and investment. In this article I will talk about the organizational processes needed to sustain organizational excellence over time.

Let’s begin by assuming that you have instituted the three keys steps outlined previously to ensure that you have the very best people in your organization: you have selected the very best, you have established a comprehensive training and education program for your people, and you have given them the best resources and technology available to both practice with and to operate with on a day-to-day basis. Let’s also assume that you, as the leader, are doing what you should be doing to provide the necessary guidance and motivation to your people both individually and collectively.

In part 1 I discussed training and education as central to achieving and maintaining excellence. Training and education must be considered in three separate categories: individual/short-term training and education, component and short and medium term training and education, and organizational/long-term education and training. The first two: individual and component training and education were addressed in the part 1, and reflect training and education provided to individuals and to smaller elements of an organization, whether it be an individual department of a company, a separate production or service facility, an individual command in the military or any other organization that functions on a day-to-day and week-to-week operational level.

Organizational excellence then, as opposed to the individual excellence that was discussed in part 1, builds on individual and component excellence and extends that excellence both across the entire organization, and extends it out in time, making it a true long-term (multiple year) effort. Training and education give way to large-scale exercises, where the entire organization is forced to integrate around long-term goals and function as a cohesive unit to achieve long-term - that is strategic goals.

What then remains must be done, in addition to what was discussed in part 1 to ensure that you build on the individual and component excellence begun in part 1 and both achieve and sustain organizational excellence in your overall, strategic endeavors?

There are three key steps are necessary to instituting excellence in your organization over time, and they are necessary irrespective of what you are doing. The three steps are: Planning, Leadership Selection, and Exercises


Planning, when carried out properly, is a means to identify the major goals of any organization and develop a plan to reach those goals, using the complete assets -- human, financial, intellectual, technological and physical – of the organization to achieve those goals. Properly constructed and executed, a (strategic) plan not only integrates all the actions of the organization, ensuring that each contributes to achieving the major goals, but it also makes it clear how the organization intends to achieve the goal or goals.

Unfortunately, planning has a bad reputation among many, and in some cases it is deserved. But it is deserved because people place the emphasis on the wrong elements of the plan. There are three major perspectives on planning and plans: those who view planning as a means to get ‘the cook-book’ to success; those who view plans as something to be feared because they will turn into ‘dogma’ and will handcuff the organization into a rigid course ahead; and those who view planning as a means to focus an organization on a long-range goal while still providing the flexibility to address short and medium term problems and take advantage of emerging opportunities.

The fact is that any plan can be turned into ‘dogma’ by a leadership that has invested heavily in the planning and finds itself, usually due either to excessive fear or hubris, unable or unwilling to change the plan. Alternatively, plans can become ‘security blankets’ for the timid, something to ‘hide behind,’ the plan being regarded as an instruction book that will be followed irrespective of whatever is happening, allowing the leadership to disengage.

A story from the German General Staff (the source of all modern strategic planning) from the mid 1800s is illustrative of how the staff process is supposed to work: a staff officer was receiving a tongue lashing from Prince Frederick Charles because of a tactical blunder in a major army field exercise. The officer, a major, offered the excuse that he had been obeying orders and that an order from a superior was equivalent to an order from the King. The Prince responded that ‘His Majesty made you a major because he believed you would know when NOT to obey orders.’

This is as true today as ever: staff planners should be chosen because they are the best available, and they need to understand not only when to follow the plan, but also when to deviate from the plan. The job of the senior leadership, as we shall discuss below, is to identify the staff planners.

When the planning process is used properly, planning, and the planning staff that produces the plan, is a mechanism for institutionalizing sustained identification of strategic goals and identifying a means to achieve those goals. If used properly, this is the cornerstone of sustained organizational strategic excellence.

In organizations throughout history that have been led by truly great figures, as long as that great figure leads the organization, the organization survived and thrived, based on the leaders exceptional leadership skills. The planning process, when executed properly, can substitute for the great leader, providing organizational focus through the planning process, integrating every aspect and individual of the organization – from the executive staff to the newest and most junior worker - into a single, cohesive organism. How does it do this? Simply put, the process demands top down focus on the goals; it ensures needed assets are identified to meet the goals; it identifies the specific tasks needed to achieve the goals, breaking the whole into manageable pieces; it identifies the needed support and infrastructure; it develops a communications and feedback mechanism to follow progress; and it identifies the needed people and skills to achieve each task.

Planning, when done properly, integrates the goals of the organization into its very fabric. It aligns all the pieces – and the people - and focuses them on the overarching goals. And to ensure that that remains true, good planning begins with selection of the very best people into the planning staff. These people are trained in the planning process and then given access to the best possible information concerning the organization and the various environments within which it operates (physical, technological, political, etc.). As planners these people are free to study and focus on the organization as a whole and where it is, where it is headed and how it might get there. They engage in rigorous planning, always conscious, as good planners must be, that they are dealing with incomplete information. And how does the system compensate for the incomplete knowledge? By taking the very best people in the organization and placing them on the planning team: individual excellence and experience fills the gaps that will develop in the plan.

Leadership Selection

Once the organizational leadership selected the members of the planning staff it is incumbent on that senior leadership to ensure that these people, who are now the best informed people in the organization and the ones with the most familiarity with the course into the future, are placed in positions of authority to both facilitate the execution of the plan and to identify which ones are ready more greater authority (promotion). This process of identifying the best people you have, assigning them to the planning staff, and then moving them to key leadership positions is not a rapid move. Rather, as conditions permit, they should remain on the planning staff a minimum of several years. During that period they will be used, in addition to their duties on the planning staff, to lead special projects that arise from time to time, and if your organization permits it, to lead key elements of the organization through exercises.

The planning staff’s function, in a nutshell, is to assist the leadership of the organization in the initial planning, in the directing, in the assessing and monitoring, and in the integration and coordination of the various elements or components of the organization, as well as providing feedback to the leadership to ensure the leadership’s direction is as accurate and effective as possible. Given this requirement, it is clear that these must be the best people in the organization.

Senior leadership should also use exercises to identify planners/future leaders who are capable of improvising the plan to achieve maximum short and medium term results while still ensuring progress on long-term goals.

During exercises the planners should be assigned to a higher position then one they would normally be considered for. This allows the senior leaders to begin to identify the maximum level of authority that that individual is capable of handling. These exercises, as well as the opportunities to lead various special projects, at the same time provide the planners with valuable feedback as to the efficacy of the plan and facilitate the development of branch plans and sequels, keeping the plan up-to-date and focused on the real organizational goals while remaining ‘in contact’ with the real world.


Exercises are used to test elements of the plan. Obviously, while there are some organizations that can easily use exercises to guide their organizations (large military organizations are obvious examples), there are many organizations, particularly those in the corporate world, where it is difficult to imagine using exercises to improve their performance and chart their future, both because of the degree of difficulty in creating a exercise that would accurately ‘model’ a particular industry, and because it would be both difficult and expensive to pull a number of people away from real operations and have them spend adequate time on the exercise to draw accurate conclusions. (While this will eventually change as computer modeling improves, it is still quite a few years away.)

The answer to such organizations is the desktop ‘game’ or seminar. Even in the most complex service organizations the use of organized seminars, and talking through the corporate plans when faced with a series of ‘what if’ questions, will give the leadership considerably more preparation and flexibility in a real crisis then if this type of activity is not pursued. For the planning team to spend two afternoons per month with the executive team working through a series of ‘what ifs’ and then bringing the executive comments back into the planning sessions, reviewing the plans, and further refining branches and sequels would go a long way to keeping the plan alive and focused and the organization, from the executive staff to the rank and file, on the ‘same page.’ This also gives the executive staff more time and opportunity to evaluate the members of the planning staff, a key element of the quest for excellence.

Exercises provide the leadership both the opportunity to evaluate key elements of the plan as well as creating an opportunity for the senior leadership to observe the planners and develop qualitative assessments of their key people – the planners. The senior leadership should be looking for those people who can provide superior performance at the operations level of the organization, can produce high-quality long-range plans, and can also provide superior strategic level leadership and decision-making.

It should also be clear by now that it is essential to not withhold your best from the planning staff. The planning staff is so important if you wish to institute excellence your very best people must be pulled from your operational units and placed into your planning staff at the appropriate times.

In Conclusion

It should go without saying that, just as there must be an investment in individual training and individual technology, that investment must be extended across the organization as a whole and integrated so that the technology in each component is supportive an interoperable with the technology in other components. This investment in technology and training is included in the investment discussed in part 1, but must be sized to ensure that there is the necessary interoperability and sufficient assets to include the large scale exercises discussed above. Thus six key elements are necessary to provide comprehensive and sustained organizational excellence:

1) Selecting the best available people
2) Providing these people the best possible education and training
3) Investing in these people and components to ensure they have the best possible mix of technologies and the most comprehensive component training and exercises, and that these technologies are interoperable
4) Developing comprehensive, integrated long-range (strategic) plans
5) Using of the planning process and the planning staff to cull the organization for the most creative and talented leadership
6) Using large-scale, across the board exercises to both test and refine the plan and to better identify the next generation of leadership within the organization


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