How many meetings do you attend over and over again where the same topics are discussed but nothing changes? If you’re like me, you find these  maddening.  Once we decide we are going to do something, why is it so often the idea is left to die on the conference table? Great ideas that can make a constructive difference to our business are just buried with the assumption our idea is now working because we talked about it.  It is D.O.A. and we do not even realize it!

Here is why.  Ideas cannot be implemented!  Yes those strokes of brilliance, no matter how earth shattering, no matter how dazzling, cannot be executed.  It would be like saying, let’s make a great dinner tonight, and then going over to the table, sitting down and waiting for the food to show up.  Your idea starves to death.

Great ideas, by themselves, are useless.  Everyone has them (or thinks they do).  The “genius” lies not in the idea but in the ability to implement one.  Your job is to take that flat-lined idea and breathe life into it so it can walk and talk and become an agent for change in your company.  We call this, “making things happen”.  With smaller ideas, you usually need only to take disciplined action for implementation.  Larger ideas, often called Strategies, take a more complex approach if we are to see them survive and thrive.

We have been taught to start by taking our Strategy and establishing goals, understanding objectives, and identifying the initiatives.  We have all heard of these things, and have used them.  If these traditional techniques are effective, then why are our Big Ideas and Strategies still on meeting agendas from year to year?

 

Years ago, when I was serving as the U.S. President of a large multinational, we created a Big Idea.  Our new Strategy was going to significantly shift our market segmentation through a redefined sales focus and new product introduction.  If successful, our strategy would deliver additional gross profit without any increase in costs.  It would turn around the financial performance of this “barely getting by” company.  We set objectives and tactics, knew we had to hire different salespeople, establish a new structure, re-train, revamp our marketing plan, develop new compensation plans, the new product, etc.

I was very excited regarding our new Strategy.  I knew we had developed a breakthrough idea and I was ready to go.  I prepared my slides, boarded an airplane and took off to present the plan to my boss, the North American CEO.  I delivered an inspired and passionate presentation.  Instead of the enthusiastic reaction I had expected, my boss looked at my slides on the table as if they were dead already.  He asked me one question, “How do you plan to execute this?”  With a little sweat forming on my brow, I quickly started to explain how I was planning a meeting with my Vice Presidents and Regional Managers.  They would be so excited with the great idea; they would take it back to the field and implement it.  We would have monthly progress reports and follow ups.  He stopped me, looked at the slides again, looked back up at me and said, “You need to take a Project Management Course.”  Then he left the room.

My flight back home was a frustrating trip, to say the least.  I knew he completely understood the Strategy.  We had talked about it together for months.  He was one of the smartest men I had ever worked for, so why wasn’t he excited we were moving forward with this plan?  I was the President, what did I need with a Project Management course?  I’ve been getting things done my entire career. I could make this work.  I wasn’t erecting a building or an aircraft carrier.  Project Management?  What did that have to do with anything?  In turmoil, I walked up and down the airplane aisle, took out paper and wrote everything I recollected from the meeting and drew up some new diagrams.  I knew there was something I was missing here.

Before we landed, it came to me.  He wasn’t questioning the Strategy at all.  But he didn’t think I had a chance in hell of executing such a wide sweeping imperative plan which would challenge our culture and traditional mindset in an absolutely new way.  So after getting over the fact I had traveled over twelve hours to get a two-line response, I hypothesized, maybe those two lines were pretty important.  And yes, the next day I enrolled in a pretty intense Project Management training program.

I learned many things about Project Management including, critical paths, sequencing, resource deployment, task constraints, GANTT and PERT charts, etc.  But the jewel I took away to facilitate implementation of our Strategy was the Work Breakdown Structure or WBS.  I learned a vital methodology for getting things done, especially immense and complex strategies.

Remember, Ideas and Strategies cannot be implemented. So you must find a way to “breakdown” the Strategy into “actionable accountable tasks”.  Many people develop the Objectives and Tactics we discussed above.  But they don’t necessarily connect the dots and pull the Strategy together.  They are often times just smaller disassociated ideas which also go nowhere.  You need to get past the Idea and get into the action.  A comprehensive integrated plan of attack that will create action and accountability must be developed.

At first glance a WBS looks like an Organizational Chart.  You begin with the Strategy in the top box and then list the objectives immediately underneath in a branch-like structure.  Then you take the objectives and break them down into initiatives.  Like the traditional model above we still aren’t at a place where action can be taken!

 

Next you take each initiative and breakdown the actual “actionable” task that someone is going to do.  You breakdown these with as much detail as possible, working further and further down the branch..  When you feel you have broken down all of the actionable tasks ask, “If I do all of these, will the box above on the chart be completed”.  If the answer is no, return and put more work into your WBS.  Go over and over it until there are no holes.

Here is an example of breaking down just one initiative.

 

Now here is the WBS secret formula.  The items on the bottom of each branch are called “Terminal Elements”.  Since Terminal Elements are “actionable”, this is where responsibilities and timeframes for delivering results are assigned.  As the results come in, they are checked off in the Terminal Element boxes as complete.  Accountability is driven at the Terminal Element Level.

If each terminal element is accomplished the next highest box above (the parent) is completed.  Do this across the entire chart and everything continues to roll up completing your project.  What does this mean?  All that is necessary to implement a big idea Strategy is execution of the smallest Terminal Elements.  The Terminal Elements become your deliverables.  And if your WBS is built correctly, they are all that is needed.  The rest of the chart can be in the background.

 

Practice! Practice! Practice! It takes practice to build proper WBS charts.  It takes practice to develop your career.  I have been at WBS charts for over fifteen years and it is still the first tool I reach for when I need to implement great ideas.  Start using them for everything.  Your WBS charts will get better and better.  Make a WBS for doing the laundry, washing your car, or preparing the meal we mentioned earlier.  I am often amazed how much time managers will spend practicing their golf swing or teaching their kid to kick a soccer ball.  And how little time they spend practicing their real craft (which by the way, most likely paid for the golf clubs and soccer ball).  Practice building WBS charts until they are second nature; until they are the foundation for how you think about implementation.

In case you are wondering how that first WBS application turned out for me.  I had our entire management team take the Project Management course.  We built a strong sales program and were successful in shifting our market segmentation.  The resulting 7% growth per job created a margin climb which increased pretax profit from .9% to 5.2%.  Using these implementation methods we took an underperforming company which was in the bottom six of the 42 world-wide companies and brought it into the top eight performers within three years.  A twelve-hour flight, two lines of hard-hitting wisdom … Project Management for a President, a Strategy; who would have thought?  What a great mentoring moment for me.

Learn to use a WBS with expertise and you will go to the “head of the class” and become a true professional implementor, a rare specialty among most Management Teams.  Put your WBS on the wall in your office so everyone can see the plan and the progress you are making.  You’ll be surprised at the attention it receives.  You will be known as a Street Smart Leader who can take those dead ideas lying on the conference room table and give them life.  Once you see those ideas walking and talking throughout your organization, you will have something to be proud of!

for more info on Work Breakdown Structures see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Work_breakdown_structure

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