Strategic initiatives were not mentioned in 1992 with the introduction of the Kaplan and Norton Balanced Scorecard in the Harvard Business Review. In the early days, the Balanced Scorecard was measure centric – “measuring the results and the measures that drove those results.” However, over time, clients began to ask, “Where does the Balanced Scorecard become real?” The response to this question ushered in the addition of initiatives as a critical part Balanced Scorecard strategy implementation process.
Strategic initiatives drive the achievement of strategic objectives. This seems straight forward enough, but how do you link an initiative to an objective? The process is not rocket science. When building a Balanced Scorecard (BSC), the typical approach begins with defining a strategic destination. What is the ultimate outcome the strategy is trying to achieve? In private for-profit organizations, it is generally defined as some sort of economic return to the shareholder/owner. In government or not-for-profit sectors, it is defined as achievement of their mission. In any event, the use of initiatives is intended to ultimately drive the achievement of the strategic destination through the achievement of linked BSC objectives.
Taking this discussion to the next level of specificity, strategic initiatives are directly linked to strategic objectives. Understanding that the strategic objective has a measure, a target, and a performance gap (a performance gap is the difference in targeted performance between where you are today and where you need to be tomorrow) is key. With the objective, measure and target defined in your BSC, you are now able to decide whether there needs to be an initiative to achieve the targeted performance level.
Simply, if the performance gap can be closed by working “smarter and harder,” it may be possible to achieve targeted performance without a strategic initiative. Some attribute this to the increased focus on the objective and believing “what gets measured gets done.” However, if after the review of the performance gap it is determined that you cannot “get there from here," then an intervention - or an initiative - may be needed. The bottom line is that not all objectives require an initiative.
If a strategic initiative is needed, then the next level of review and analysis is needed to ensure the intervention will close the performance gap. This begins with the development of a set of standard criteria for evaluating new or existing initiatives, e.g. cost, time, risk, or interdependency. Some evaluations, in addition to defining the selection criteria, will weigh the criteria, suggesting gradient levels of impact. Using these evaluation techniques, selection recommendations can be made, or at least prioritized.
If the organization has unlimited time, money, and talent, then the selection process can conclude. However, few, if any, organizations have such a luxury. So, the next stage in the initiative selection process is required. This is the development of the business case which outlines the inputs required, such as people and treasure, and the outputs expected, such as benefits (closure of the performance gap) along with a project plan. Again, this is not rocket science; it is generally what is done to recommend, fund and manage a project. If the organization has a Project Management Office, this is a general operating procedure.
What may be different for strategic initiatives is the stewardship provided by the leadership team. Best practices suggest that since the strategy is developed and approved by the leadership team and the relevant strategic objectives are required to achieve the strategy, the leadership team should provide oversight for the initiative. This is not the same as project management done by the project manager – it is ownership through stewardship. The assigned leadership team member is responsible for monitoring, reporting, and when needed, bringing recommendations to the full leadership team for review and approval. This is generally done during the Strategy Review Meeting – the monthly or quarterly meeting where the leadership team get a report on the progress of the strategy. Check out Strategic Planning and Innovation for strategy review recommendations.
Strategic initiatives are critical in advancing the strategy. They should be considered strategic investments and managed that way. A convention defined as “Stratex” has been used by many to earmark strategic initiative funding. This is not a rewrite of the Accounting Standards or a shift in the Chart of Accounts, but it is a recognition that a select group of either “OPEX” or “CAPEX” is tied to strategy implementation. This provides a visible way of monitoring, reporting, and managing these critical strategy implementation resources.
By following best practices in project management and strategy management, leaders can enhance their ability to execute strategy. Remember, strategic initiatives are where the Balanced Scorecard becomes real!