First class coach

All my previous jobs required me to have strategic ideas, which I find quite easy and enjoyable.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I've been promoted to head of department and I'm now in charge of people and implementing my ideas and those of others. I'm not sure where to start.

You have already made a good start in recognising that moving from being primarily a thinker to an effective doer as well isn't easy. One of the reasons strategists don't always make good general managers is that their thinking has been unconstrained by tangible targets such as turnover and profits, and they haven't had to worry much about such niceties as employment law. Yet these things are the small change of daily life when you find yourself heading a department.

The first thing to do is to list everything you would like to achieve in the next 12 months and then rank them in order of importance to the organisation and to you - the two sets of priorities may differ. Next, talk to the people who report to you to find out what they think the priorities are. They may not agree with your views, but you'll have achieved three things: listened to them, gained a more informed view of the obstacles to progress and identified who might support you.

There are two classic mistakes made by those new to the implementation role. The first is to be over-ambitious in the number of new projects they undertake and the amount of change they try to drive. My friend Andrew is a case in point. An imaginative lateral thinker, he was put in charge of driving a major new initiative last year. He quickly came up with 10 excellent ideas for making the vision a reality. But after six months, despite general agreement that all his ideas were valid, not much tangible had happened on any of them. So we sat down together to move things on.

At the end of an hour he'd isolated the most important project, established an appropriate date for the launch, a methodology for running it, and he knew which venue would be suitable.

We did it by considering the six questions that inject rigour into thinking and generate practical action plans. The 'why' question was easy for someone with a strategic brain, and the answers to the 'what' and 'how' questions were also pretty clear. The 'who' question, finding someone suitable to drive the process forward, took some thought. Most organisations are loath to increase headcount and, these days, when resources are stretched, asking someone to do something new often means they have to stop doing something else, so the knock-on effect needs to be taken into account.

If these projects take place, the final questions 'when' and 'where' also merit exploration. Though natural impatience encourages early deadlines, setting unrealistic expectations can create disappointment when targets cannot be met and can actually slow the process down.

The six questions sound rather prosaic, but the answers require serious thought and provide a comprehensive structure for checking that all the bases have been covered. For Andrew, the process also reminded him that getting the details right will be important to the success of the initiative and that he needs support from those who take pleasure in the details that bore him.

The second common mistake made by those who move from the world of ideas to the domain of action is to decide that existing processes are ineffective, bureaucratic and stifling, and to try to jettison them all. It's true that in many organisations accepted methodologies have become ossified and no longer serve the customers - internal or external. However, no enterprise of any size can survive without some operating procedures that ensure the mundane as well as the important things are achieved. So it is unwise to disrupt too much until you have an informed opinion about what isn't working and how things might be improved. Input from user groups can validate or dispel preconceptions.

In your strategic role, ideas have been the currency and your brain has been your best friend. Now your success will depend on getting other people to adopt your ideas and use their special skills to make them happen.

Don't expect everything to run smoothly: as the quotation has it, between the idea and the reality falls a shadow. But if you can be realistic in your expectations and communicate them clearly, rationally and personally to the people you lead, the areas of shadow will be smaller and your chances of success greater.

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