<p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p>Interview with Robert H</p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p>
Robert H. Schaffer and Ronald
N. Ashkenas recently published a series of dramatic case studies from both the
private and public sectors on quick and highly successful turnaround projects.
The book, Rapid Results! How 100-day Projects Build the Capacity for
Large-Scale Change, (Jossey Bass, 2005) outlines a counterintuitive
method for facilitating change in organizations. The authors’ approach to
change, backed by many case studies of measurable results, centers on
strengthening the weakest element in organizational achievement—implementation
capability. This interview with Robert Schaffer may challenge the way you’ve sought to gain
traction in your organization.
been writing about the power of focusing on results rather than activities for
decades. Yet in the 1990’s it still seemed almost revolutionary to say that
for a consulting project to be successful it had to achieve a result rather than
offer advice about how to achieve a result. What factors led to this blind spot?
RHS: I’m not so certain a revolutionary
change has really taken hold. Most organizations still believe that the way to
achieve better results is by strengthening various organizational
dimensions—in other words, preparing to change. And somehow after this
preparation, the results will simply happen. Examples of traditional change
initiatives include rolling out training, doing a re-organization, and
introducing new methodologies or systems. These ideas are often proposed by
consultants. In each case, the organization makes a leap of faith that these new
structures or procedures will produce the results. The reality is that they
often do not.
Our approach has been to help
our clients focus on an improvement, often one that has been needed for years,
by defining the result they want to achieve. The result must be measurable, such
as reducing rejects by 10% or increasing revenues by 20%. Once the team agrees
to the goal, they are free to collaborate and innovate any way they can to
achieve it. The clear, measurable goal acts as a rallying point for the team. A
sense of competition and excitement abounds, and creativity flourishes. Barriers
to change come down, and the team often achieves more than they thought
The blind spot you alluded to
is that leaders often feel less comfortable depending on their employees to be
creative than they do implementing a new system or rolling out a training
course. While the latter activities do not guarantee success, to most managers
they feel like steps in the right direction.
seems to be some overall structure to a Rapid Results project. How involved do
consultants stay in the project itself or does this vary by organization?
There is certainly structure to Rapid Results projects. I have already mentioned
one key aspect: a measurable goal. Another component is a short time frame,
usually between two months and 100 days. Urgency is important in building the
excitement in these projects. The right team is also a critical piece of the
puzzle. The team is not selected based on individuals’ levels, but by the
capabilities and know-how the members bring to the project. We usually recommend
cross-functional teams to integrate several perspectives and skill sets.
The project is planned and
accomplished by the people on the team. While we set the stage for them to
achieve the results, the team comes up with the plan to actually make the
project work, and they execute the steps. We structure the project by giving the
team tools to brainstorm solutions, develop their action plan, and monitor
progress. We also help when teams get stuck. There is also a company sponsor to
provide guidance and support to the team.
Traction: Is leadership ever a barrier to getting
the project done?
RHS: Most senior people are so delighted to
see their people working like this that a lot of the potential coaching issues
don’t materialize. Seeing their team experiment, learn, and accomplish a
challenging goal in a short period of time is enough to convince most leaders of
the benefits of Rapid Results.
A common protest of leaders
unfamiliar with our approach is that we focus only on “low-hanging fruit,”
something they already do. This is not the case at all. Achieving the identified
goal is certainly important in a Rapid Results environment. But arguably more
important is the learning that takes place and the application of that learning
to other areas of the organization. We help build capabilities in organizations
so they can perform better in the long run.
Traction: The role of the company leader seems
pivotal: 1) provide a vision, 2) demand and expect results, 3) promote
experimentation, and 4) stay involved, but don’t micromanage.
RHS: Good summation. Once they get the idea,
they are usually willing to let the team run with the ball. What makes many
leaders nervous is when there is no plan and they see nothing happening. It
often causes them to jump in and try to create control and structure, which can
curb creativity. One way to alleviate this is to have weekly or biweekly project
reviews with the team’s sponsor to make sure the project is on track. As it
becomes clear that the project will work, leaders are able to let the team find
its way to success.
The short time frame is
definitely an important aspect of Rapid Results. Over time, project objectives
can “drift.” Things change and people forget about the original challenge.
They may go through preparations and activities, but never get around to
anything else. Rapid Results is “do it now.” It’s learning how to manage differently, and it creates a climate that
builds capability, “can do” confidence, and a zest for work. It’s fun to
win at a challenge. We had one group that was into the last two weeks of their
project before they unlocked the key to really making their equipment run
faster. They worked extra hours and weekends, but no one complained. They were
determined to win. When people have to get to a specific result in a short time,
it’s like the Super Bowl. There is the pre-game preparation, the game itself,
and it’s clear which team wins.
Have you ever had a Rapid Results project not work as well as
expected? What factors led to that,
or are there circumstances when you avoid using the Rapid Results approach?
work less well than others. Truthfully, this generally happens if we did not do
a good enough job helping management select the right project. As consultants we
have a responsibility to the client to think through what will work and helping
them produce a written assignment to the team leader. Selecting the right
project is a task unto itself and must be done thoughtfully.
To me the only failure is
failure to learn. In the case of the struggling team I mentioned, senior
management was more relaxed than the team because they saw how hard these guys
were testing and trying different approaches. Though not every experiment was
100% successful, the team learned quickly and leveraged what was successful.
That team was passionate about succeeding—and that’s a real driver.
In our experience employees
don’t have enough opportunities to succeed. Most individuals are enthusiastic
about stepping up to a challenge and using their skills to achieve it. Many
leaders fail to exploit this aspect of human nature. They instill bureaucracy or
force solutions on employees, which hinder creativity and innovation. When
leaders let their employees test new ideas and learn the results are
Traction: Is this just for large companies?
No. Rapid Results can be effective wherever groups are looking to accomplish
something. In working with the World Bank, we develop projects that really help
the participants in developing countries improve the quality of their lives. One
example is “professional sex workers” in Africa and preventing HIV
transmission. We helped these individuals set goals that meant something to each
of them personally. Before, the sex workers had operated as individuals. We
helped them form a team so they had group support.
It was not lost on the
Minister of Health of that country that in the past these projects had not
worked because the officials told them what to do—and that this project worked
because the people who needed to implement the solution planned the process.
It’s tapping into motivation and creativity. We’ve used Rapid Results to
help communities purify water, sell more dairy products, and deal with
agricultural productivity projects.
Results work anywhere, it is
not only effective for large companies.
Traction: Do projects ever surprise you or your
don’t get amazed anymore by what people can do. There is enormous unused
capability. We did a project with an aluminum company that, at the time, had 20%
of their orders arrive late to the customer. To address this issue we did a
“model week” –for one week, 100% of the shipments had to go on time. We
mobilized the entire company to achieve it, and they did. And 13 years later,
they boast of a 98.8% on time delivery record on their website. This sustained
improvement came grew out of a one-week demonstration project.
If an organization is considering a Rapid Results project, what
factors do they need to be thinking about? How
would they best judge if this is an approach for them?
RHS: I would say that Rapid Results can help
any organization do a better job with execution. In other words, when a company
understands what it must achieve or the problems it must fix, but is struggling
to do so, these breakthrough projects can help them get there. It’s literally
“rapid results” – superior performance fast. However, while this approach
helps groups deliver results and build capabilities it does not replace
strategic planning. Rapid Results should complement the strategic planning
process by helping organizations execute the strategy.
The only other key factor to
being successful using this approach is leadership that is serious about
achieving real results – not just carrying out a lot of right-sounding
programs. Such a leadership needs
to empower teams and individuals to meet their goals. Collaboration,
experimentation, learning, and innovation are the hallmarks of Rapid Results.
For this approach to be effective, leaders must let teams question current
procedures, rules, and structures and experiment to find better ways to work.
Robert Schaffer is founder of Robert H. Schaffer Associates and the originator of the rapid cycle approach described in the interview. He has written three books, authored more than 50 articles including six for the Harvard Business Review (including two best sellers).
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