While working on more than $2 billion worth of reinvention projects in the past 15 years, I’ve often reflected on why large companies can be so good at running their organizations but struggle so much when it comes to changing them. Any way you slice it, reinvention is hard. It is difficult even when it’s successful. And it hurts when projects stumble, spiral out of control, or crash and burn—which happens as much as 70 percent of the time.
The problem is that while we have been trained to put science to work for us on transformational initiatives, the experts taught us the wrong science. Management legend Peter Drucker was the first to hint at this. For decades, conventional project management has been based on physical sciences, but we’re facing a social science dilemma. We’ve been taught to use highly structured project-management techniques in our highly dynamic organizations. And when it works poorly, we often try to become even more structured. Not only does that approach not work, it doesn’t even make sense.
The structured approach is based on Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, which was published in 1911 and works great for assembly lines and similar repetitive tasks. But organizational dynamics are neither structured nor predictable. Our project-management techniques were designed for industrial work that was visible, standalone and unchanging. But the forces we face in today’s organizations are invisible, interdependent and ever-changing.
In large reinvention efforts, the big challenges usually involve people. Some people are strategic and hate process; some love numbers and deadlines but can’t stand (other) people; some love process and resist new ideas; and others love people but couldn’t hit a deadline to save their lives. Physical science, which is the basis for conventional project management, factors out these human complications. Yes, we’ve been taught to fail at large-scale reinvention.
Where the physical sciences focus on answers, Drucker taught us to focus on the questions. In the physical sciences, you get the same answer to the same questions time and time again. In the social sciences, this is often not the case. After a decade of research into reinvention, it’s clear that there are four questions that need to be continually asked and answered.
Envision: Where do you intend to go and why? Projects that fail almost never have a single, shared vision among the key stakeholders. When they succeed, this vision is clear.
Design: What do you therefore need to do—and when? Even when companies are clear on their vision and purpose, they can still mess up by overcomplicating things. You need to focus, focus, focus.
Build: How do you best accomplish only what’s specified in the design? This requires all stakeholders to use the same project-management process and a common language.
Operate: Who will be responsible for and motivated to do which tasks? A transformational project requires individual accountability and clear motivation. Co-leading cripples projects. And because people aren’t robots, key employees need to be highly motivated to accomplish the goal.
It’s time to reinvent reinvention by managing projects as people projects, by getting answers to these four questions, asked in the proper sequence and on an ongoing basis.
Jack Bergstrand is founder and CEO of Brand Velocity, a consultancy that helps companies improve and accelerate business initiatives. He is a former CIO and CFO at Coca-Cola and author of Reinvent Your Enterprise. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.