Being forced to produce short term wins

Creating short term wins is different from hoping for short term wins. The latter is passive, the former active. In a successful transformation, managers actively look for ways to obtain clear performance improvements, establish goals in the yearly planning system, achieve the objectives, and reward the people involved with recognition, promotions, and even money. For example, the guiding coalition at a US manufacturing company produced a highly visible and successful new product introduction about 20 months after the start of its renewal effort. The new product was selected about six months into the effort because it met multiple criteria: it could be designed and launched in a relatively short period, it could be handled by a small team of people who were devoted to the new vision it had upside potential and the new product development team could operate outside the established departmental structure without practical problems Little was left to chance, and the win boosted the credibility of the renewal process.

Managers often complain about being forced to produce short term wins, but it was found that pressure can be a useful element in a change effort. When it becomes clear to people that major change will take a long time, urgency levels can drop. Commitments to produce short term wins help keep the urgency level up and force detailed analytical thinking that can clarity or revise visions.

After a few years of hard work, managers may be tempted to declare victory with the first clear performance improvements. While celebrating a win is fine, declaring the war won can be catastrophic. Until changes sink deeply into a company’s culture, a process that can take five to ten years, new approaches are fragile and subject to regression.

In the recent past, we have watched a dozen change efforts operate under the reengineering theme. In all but two cases, victory was declared and the expensive consultants were paid and thanked when the first major project was completed after two to three years. Within two more years, the useful changes that had been introduced slowly disappeared. In two of the ten cases it’s hard to find any trace of the reengineering work today.

Over the past 20 years, the same sort of thing happen to huge quality projects, organizational development efforts, and more. Typically the problems start early in the process: the urgency level is not intense enough, the guiding coalition is not powerful enough, and the vision is not clear enough. But it is the premature victory celebration that kills momentum. And then the powerful forces associated with traditional take over.

Ironically, it is often a combination of change initiators and change resistors that creates the premature victory celebration. In their enthusiasm over a clear sign of progress, the initiators go overboard. They are then joined by resistors, who are quick to spot any opportunity to stop change. After the celebration is over, the resistors point to the victory as a sign that the war has been won and the troops should be sent home. Weary troops allow themselves to be convinced that they won. Once home, the foot soldiers are reluctant to climb back on the ships. Soon thereafter, change come to a halt, and tradition creeps back in.

Instead of declaring victory, leaders of successful efforts use the credibility afforded by short term wins to tackle even bigger problems. They go after systems and structures that are not consistent with the transformation vision and have not been confronted before. They pay great attention to who is promoted, who is hired, and how people are developed. They include new reengineering projects that are even bigger in scope than the initial ones.