Implementation takes guts

By | August 7, 2017

James McKinsey, the founder and namesake of McKinsey & Company, discovered this the hard way when he was recruited by one of his clients to be CEO.  After many years consulting, he now had the authority to implement.  In 1935, Marshall Fields was in need of help. The retailer had lost $12M over the last 5 years and had a $18M debt repayment coming up. Trouble all around.

McKinsey (the man, not the firm) attacked the problem aggressively, restructuring the firm and ensuring its long-term survival; after all, Marshall Fields survived another 70+ years until it was acquired by Macys in 2005. Not bad work. The right, difficult decisions a CEO makes.

Duff McDonald, author of The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its’ Secret Influence on American Business (affiliate link), notes that this took a huge toll on McKinsey. He grew depressed, eventually got pneumonia and died two years later. It’s hyperbole to say that implementation is what killed him, but it is clear that it was the hardest thing he had ever done.

Letting go of 1,200 employees. Cut whole divisions and retiring people early. Receiving 10-20 letters threatening his life. This is all tough stuff. . .

“Never in my whole life before did I know how much more difficult it is to make business decisions myself than merely advising others what to do.”  – James McKinsey

Some folks belittle implementation. They say it’s easy or boring. Something pedestrian and kinda blue-collar. While no one is foolish enough to say that it does not matter, they readily and arrogantly say that someone else should do the work. Hmm, disconnect.

Implementation matters. 10 out of 10 MBAs will boastfully decry that they want to do strategy, as if that is where the money is. That is a false choice. Strategy and implementation are two sides of the same (value-driving) coin.

Consulting can be overly theoretical. I have been on several projects to clean up the “strategy” work of other consulting firms. It’s almost a cliche story: high-end $500+/hr consulting firm puts together a plan that sounds good on paper.

Real life example: Consulting firm (not mine) advises retail client to lay-off more expensive (read: experienced) sales people because the data shows only a loose correlation between years of experience & annual sales. Definitely cavalier. Potentially stupid.

More than just the executives. Yes, we are hired by the Csuite. Yes, it is intellectually rigorous work. Yes, it starts with a smaller group of people with positional power. However, it should not end there. The recommendation is just the beginning. There is lots more to do.

Decisions sit. The command-and-control archetype is dead. The notion that decisions made in the boardroom swiftly trickle down to the reaches of the organization is dead. Decisions are like raw ingredients on a chopping board. They don’t cook themselves. They don’t jump into the blender and frying pan. Decisions just sit. Organizational inertia is bigger than me, bigger than you. It is not a 1 person job.

Make it easy to implement. For me, change requires equal part head (intellect / analysis), heart (leadership / passion), hand (implementation). Organizations have inertia built up from legacy IT systems, veteran employees, M&A with limited post-merger integration, poor incentives, geographic distance, and plain-old laziness. However simple it may seem on PowerPoint in the boardroom, it is often a hot mess when you want to implement it.

Implementation is tough. Everything seems easier in theory. While it may seem straightforward to cut costs on an excel spreadsheet – what does that look like when you are the one delivering the unhappy news to managers and employees? Change is not simple. It takes more than an executive memo to get an organizational supertanker to change direction.

McKinsey’s 7S framework is an oldie-goldie from the 1970s here.  Strategy, shared values, skills, staff, systems, structure, style.  That’s a lot of things to have to get right. Don’t be surprised if clients are slow to adopt and adapt – remember, they have been here a long time before you visited, and will be there a long time after you leave. “We’ve had consultants before” is a common refrain. Change is not simple. Change takes effort and heart.

Shout out to the implementation teams. This toast goes out to all the consultants who are on the ground helping clients get things done. We don’t make recommendations so they end up on the book shelf. We are in the business of making change happen.  Kudos.

Feelings on implementation

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8 thoughts on “Implementation takes guts

  1. SV

    “Strategy and implementation are two sides of the same (value-driving) coin.”

    A lot of good insights here, but this one’s a keeper. I have to come back to this post a few more times to get them all.

  2. DK-Consultant

    Thank you for a great read, and blog in general!

    I completely agree that ‘Strategy without implementation is useless’ – as the other way around.
    I also feel that there’s a correlation between implementation and success, if the strategy is not only considering restructuring, new systems or general cuts, but takes the whole organizations’ capabilities system into consideration.
    I’m currently working hands on with change management on a huge IT implementation, and it’s obvious that without a clear strategy and management of the change throughout the capabilities system, it would have been a huge failure.

    Have a great day and stay productive!

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