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The Relentless Search for Better Ways

by Jim Bearden

"Initiative du jour". Does that have a familiar ring? Many companies have long histories of ideas that became initiatives, and initiatives that went, well, nowhere. Died on the vine.

It doesn't take too many of these before the staff becomes accustomed to-even expects-much talk and little action. The "rollout" of each new initiative is greeted with a collective rolling of eyes and reassurances that if "we just lay low, this latest one will blow over and we can get back to the way we've always done things".

An interesting point about those initiatives is many of them made sense. No one could argue with the need or shortcoming or opportunity that these initiatives seemed designed to address. But logic just wasn't enough.

My guess is that this is a widespread malady, and I would further surmise that organizational (and individual) progress would improve dramatically if those initiatives got enough traction to produce some initial results. That would create the momentum necessary for them to really pay off, in at least 2 ways.

The ultimate pay off is that they would address the problems or opportunities for which there were developed. They would generate some economic value.

As important-and in some cases more important-these successes would reinforce the efforts of the people who supported them and would give cynics cause to rethink their cynicism. Initiatives that produce results can help convert a culture from change-averse to change-friendly.

Culture and The Search

It is difficult to overstate the importance of culture, because out in the real world, corporate culture "trumps" initiatives. No matter how much sense an initiative makes, no matter how logical it seems; the organizational culture, and not the logic, will determine its fate. "Bad" cultures eat "good" initiatives alive.

A few years ago a client asked me to share with him the one distinguishing characteristic I'd seen in successful people and organizations. Without hesitation I gave him the same answer I would give him today: Successful people demonstrate a willingness to consider and try alternatives to the status quo.

Actually, they're more than just willing, they're eager to do so. Those successful people are actively engaged in what I refer to as "The Relentless Search for Better Ways". When those people find themselves in leadership positions, they facilitate expanded participation in that search.

One might think that developing (or dreaming up) and launching (or "lobbing") initiatives is a good example of someone engaged in this relentless search. If the initiatives produced results, then I would agree. But when they don't, when they repeatedly go nowhere, then the search hasn't really begun.

Back to the "initiatives du jour". We've seen that many of them are based on sound logic, at least regarding the areas they're designed to address. But since they're "stillborn", the search for better ways must extend beyond their potential value and focus on two key stages in their "life cycles": their design and their execution.

Initiative Design

To be effective, leaders must function effectively as facilitators. Even in small companies, presidents, CEOs or other leaders simply cannot perform all the tasks necessary for organizational success. Leaders' success is ultimately determined by the things that other people do and how well they do them. Same with initiatives. In order for them to get traction, gain momentum and produce the results for which they were intended, other people must get actively involved. One reason so many initiatives fall flat is because leaders don't get key people involved in the design phase. And when I say "key people", I'm talking about the people whose efforts will be required for the execution and ultimate success of those initiatives.

Back to logic. We've agreed that many failed initiatives have good logic behind them. That being the case, the leader who recognizes an area in need of addressing (a problem, potential problem, untapped opportunity) can use logic as the basis for calling together a group of people who are impacted by that area and who have the perspective, skills and experience to figure out how to address it.

Those people may have little or no experience actually designing initiatives (remember, in most organizations, initiatives have been created and handed down). What that means is their initial designs and plans will most certainly have flaws. But by having them design (own) the initiatives, and by making it clear that designs and plans are not expected to be perfect, leaders are creating cultures that support trial and error. And that sure seems to make sense to me, since almost every worthwhile improvement ever made included healthy doses of trial and error.

Which would you prefer, an initiative that never goes anywhere because no one gets behind it, or one that moves slowly at first because its designers and executers are having to fine-tune their plans? With the first option you have no progress. With the second you have slow initial progress, but you also get some traction, which becomes momentum that ultimately produces the results being sought.

Initiative Execution

"What gets measured gets done". I'm sure you've heard that, and based on my experience, it's the truth. A missing ingredient in most failed initiatives is any meaningful follow-up or oversight by people in leadership positions.

In most organizations the leader or leaders will go "to the mountain top" (hunker down in their offices) and hammer out new and exciting initiatives, which they then hand over ("lob") to the people they expect to execute them. Those people already have plenty to do, so when a new initiative is laid on them, their first question is likely to be, "Just how important is this one?". If they ask that question, they'll receive verbal assurance that this one is very important to the people "at the top". But when there is no follow-up from those "top" people, the message is clear. If there is disparity between what gets said and what gets done, the behavior (or lack thereof) carries the day.

Where failed initiatives are concerned, "The Relentless Search for Better Ways" must include-begin with-the role leaders have played in the design and execution of those initiatives. Too often those leaders are far too involved in their design and far too uninvolved in their execution.


Jim Bearden develops and delivers customized leadership presentations and leadership development seminars that are fast-paced and highly interactive. Drawing on his personal leadership experiences as a US Marine, a corporate executive and the parent of three children and his warm sense of humor, Jim offers practical insights on the requirements, characteristics and roles for leaders as facilitators of essential organizational activities. To learn more about Jim's services, visit his website.

You may contact Jim Bearden about speaking, consulting, other publications and many other things by using the form at the end of this link. You must request permission from Jim Bearden to re-print or repost this article.


© 2005 Wally Bock. Click for Contact Information.