First-Class Coach

The process will warn your CEO that he has been exerting impossible pressure on the firm.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: My CEO keeps coming up with ideas. We all admire him, but he's driving us mad. No sooner do we begin to make progress on one new project than he comes up with yet another. Everyone is working flat out, but if we can't get him to slow down, morale will drop and people will be so exhausted they'll start leaving.

A: Innovate or die is the dictum in today's businesses, and many organisations where management is better at maintaining the status quo than coming up with new products and processes are spending millions of pounds trying to boost creativity in their senior people or importing ideas from highly paid consultants. So your CEO is a rare species who needs to be cherished. But there are two potential pitfalls with this type of leadership: the quantity and the quality of their output, and the impact that output has on those downstream tasked with implementation.

You've mentioned the volume problem: the apparently endless stream of ideas that someone - not usually their creator - has to put into action. Individuals wired that way don't have to think hard to come up with new ideas; they bubble up on their own. Initiators of ideas tend to be impatient to see them become a reality. They don't like it when other, more practically minded people point out the obstacles that these new initiatives may present. Their keenness for the new thing may blind them to any conflict with other strategic imperatives, such as increasing margin or maintaining key customer relationships.

Even when the ideas are good, it can have a negative effect on the business if there are too many of them to be resourced effectively: employees can suffer initiative fatigue and lose focus, uncertain what the real priorities are.

As to their quality, not all new ideas are equally valuable. A charismatic leader who can sell his or her concepts may foist an unworkable project onto the organisation, especially if any challengers to the scheme are dealt with aggressively.

I have two suggestions for you, the first to do with managing existing projects, the second for making sure that future initiatives are sound and properly prioritised. Make a list of all the ongoing projects and ascribe to them a percentage according to how close they are to completion. Tell your boss you're concerned that some of his good ideas don't seem to be progressing as rapidly as you'd both like and suggest an initiative progress review with the senior people involved.

Draw up a chart for this meeting, a matrix with four boxes, one axis being 'impact on the organisation' and the other 'ease of implementation'. Ask attendees to assign each initiative to one of the boxes. If it is low-impact but easy to implement - eg, putting a coffee machine in reception - it's a quick win that won't make a huge difference to the company's fortune but might boost morale. If the project is not that difficult to execute but will make a big difference, then this is a strategic imperative that must be actioned now and requires appropriate resource: involvement of senior people, money, equipment.

Some initiatives may be harder to achieve or longer-term, but might still make a big difference to future success. These need to be given a reasonable timeline and appropriate resource.

Some of your CEO's pet projects may fall into the fourth category: hard to implement and with little positive impact for the longer term. These deserve to be kicked into the long grass or, more politely, 'put on the back-burner'.

As well as affording you a shared method of evaluating future projects, this approach encourages all management to consider the sheer volume of projects going through and to prioritise them, apportion responsibility and resource, and perhaps to abandon the least important.

With luck, the process will warn your CEO that he has been exerting impossible pressure on the organisation and needs to be more circumspect. To cement this learning, develop a project-briefing format - a single page that states what the goal is, who's responsible for it, what the timeline and the budget are, and the level of priority. Set a progress review date, too.

Big-picture thinkers like your CEO aren't usually interested in - or good at - the details and so rely on others to make things happen. If you can position this new initiative-filtering process as a way to make sure his good ideas become a reality more smoothly, you may well find your boss open to a rather more structured approach.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail:

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