The end of the big bang

The days of grand, long-term, big-production ideas and programs whose benefits will be realized many years down the road are gone. This is not to say there isn’t a need for long-range planning and multiyear implementations of certain types of projects, like customer relationship management, facilities construction or supply chain systems. Such projects will always be a part of business.

But for the most part, organizations need to be geared for shorter and shorter timeframes for delivery. Why?

No one has the time to wait. Not returns-conscious shareholders, not hard-pressed executive management and not frontline managers being confronted with metrics that require documented performance.

The benefits are needed now. Under increasing pressure from competitors offering customers reasons to switch to their products or services, organizations must create and innovate on a more frequent basis to keep customers happy.

Personal advancement requires delivering. With more demands falling all the way down the management ladder, those who deliver quantifiable results will move ahead. Those who do not deliver can be replaced with those who do.

Coping with these pressures requires executives and managers to think in smaller, more modular terms. This means constantly moving the interests of the organization forward, even if that motion seems to be modest.

In addition to helping satisfy corporate demands, this incremental forward motion can ultimately provide individuals with greater inner peace and personal satisfaction in a frenzied workplace. Knowing how even a small contribution is advancing corporate interests can help alleviate the frustration of constant interruptions and distractions that pack the average workday.

Create Smaller Tasks

Creating incremental forward motion in an organization is like performing a series of short tacks on a sailboat. By learning to tack back and forth well in response to changing external conditions, the “crew” of a company can move the organization forward a little at a time. This also forces people to work together as a team.

Whatever needs to be done has to be broken into smaller, manageable tasks, each of which can be a subset of an overall strategy or plan, which affects both the budgeting and the planning processes. The advantage is that the organization can receive benefits as it goes instead of waiting for them at the end of the yellow brick road.

For example, Marriott International, tackles all information technology projects company wide with an ongoing focus on short-term benefit. “Either the technology or the business changes,” says CIO Carl Wilson.

“Rather than trying to eat the elephant all at once, we break out our major initiatives into phases and make sure we get real business value on each phase,” says Wilson. “Rather than three- to- five-year projects, we look at six- to twelve-month programs with very tangible value.” Marriott creates a three- to five-year vision and update, which is refreshed each year during budgeting.

“Project lifecycles have to shrink to combat the problems you have with larger projects,” says Ralph Menzano, CIO of South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), the sixth largest public transportation operator in the U.S. “People leave more frequently these days and at the upper levels executive sponsors leave fairly quickly also.”

Like Marriott, SEPTA learned to chop up its projects. “You have to have deliverables at least every 90 days,” says Menzano. “Nobody has the patience for the longer project any more.”

No More Big Bang Theory

The concept of “spare time” is like the “paperless office” or complete compatibility among computers: It could happen, but don’t hold your breath. If something truly seems important, you’re probably better off making some incremental forward progress with it right away. Doing so will help you determine just how significant it is, and how to tackle dealing with the rest.

For individuals to accept and practice the concept that incremental forward motion should occur regardless of whether it benefits the individual himself, it must be part of a company’s strategy. Companies must go beyond simply paying lip service to the concept of teamwork. They must align compensation plans to create a culture that helps people see that any short-term move that truly moves the company forward toward its strategic goals is of benefit to them as well.