From time to time in organizational life, we encounter entities we call initiatives. Some initiatives reside entirely within an existing organizational element. Others span several elements, drawing resources from multiple elements or from resource pools attached to administrative elements. Usually, we charter initiatives to exploit previously overlooked opportunities, or to address previously unrecognized weaknesses, or to proactively attend to recently detected threats. Initiatives usually begin their lives narrowly focused and clearly defined. But many eventually expand their missions. They lose focus. They become more difficult to define. They acquire multiple objectives and they lose coherence. They become incoherent initiatives.
Keeping When the purpose of an
incoherent initiative becomes
unclear, team unity gives way
to division and confusionincoherent initiatives aligned to their original objectives, which are usually important and worthy, can be difficult indeed. Because the purpose of an incoherent initiative becomes unclear, the people assigned to it become less able to affiliate with the initiative. Unity of purpose gives way to division and confusion. Incoherence thus becomes a threat to the initiative itself. Effectively managing incoherence risk is essential to the success of initiatives.
Managing incoherence risk begins with understanding the sources of risk. Below is a little catalog of antipatterns and forces that enhance the probability that a focused, coherent initiative can become incoherent.
- Constituency building run amok
- To build support for the initiative, advocates add to the mission specific objectives designed to attract support from a collection of organizational elements. This is a sensible approach. But when constituency building takes precedence over maintaining mission focus, the result can be loss of coherence.
- Not accounting for reorganizations
- During the early phases of initiative development, advocates develop objectives that appeal to those organizational elements that they believe will support the initiative. But reorganizations do sometimes occur after initiative objectives are partially developed. When that happens, organizational elements that previously supported the initiative sometimes vanish or are redistributed across organizational elements that have survived the reorganization. In some cases, those vanished or redistributed elements can no longer support the initiative. Indeed, in some cases, a primary goal of the reorganization was to strangle the initiative.
- When a reorganization occurs, advocates of the initiative would do well to review all elements of the initiative's mission. By examining elements that support only vanished or redistributed organizational components, initiative advocates might be able to refocus the initiative to make it more coherent.
- Vague or non-existent public expressions of objectives
- Clear, specific statements of objectives are essential tools for maintaining coherence. But some regard clarity and specificity as constraining. The clarity imperative is most troublesome to advocates who want to maintain the freedom to adapt the initiative's mission as needed to build support from heterogeneous constituencies.
- Ambiguity and vagueness do leave people free to work toward their preferred objectives. But the price of ambiguity and vagueness is incoherence. Express objectives and key results as needed to build support, but not by sacrificing coherence.
- Blocking the missions of rivals
- Some initiatives are created for political reasons. For example, to delay or obstruct Person A's efforts, Person B (a rival of A) might create an initiative that consumes the budget resources that A needs. Or B's initiative might tie up the space or personnel A's initiative needs.
- These "blocking initiatives" need no coherent mission of their own. They need only a justification for the allocation of budget, space and personnel that A requires.
- All-or-nothing objectives
- One concern many initiative advocates have is that their proposal will be accepted, but only in part, while other parts are rejected or deferred. To prevent this "slicing and dicing" they craft the initiative mission in such a way that partial acceptance is impossible. The elements of the initiative are so interlocked that the organization must accept the entire package.
- To accomplish this interlocking, initiative architects often impose constraints that have the incidental effect of compromising coherence.
If political agendas, or maintaining flexibility, or mitigating the risks of partial acceptance, or building or maintaining support for the initiative, is the advocate's primary goal, coherence can suffer. One indicator of these agendas is the history of the mission statement. In one form of this history, there is a trail of proposals, with successively more elaborate statements of benefits. Each revision is designed to appeal to a new set of stakeholders, with requirements of their own, not covered in previous revisions. In a second form, the goals of the initiative change for reasons unrelated to the work itself. If a close reading of the different versions of the proposal reveals any of the patterns above, support the initiative with care. Leave yourself an exit. Top Next Issue
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