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How to Get out of Soapbox Hell: Turning Ideas into Successful Organizational Initiatives

Sean Johnson
Founding Partner

You’ve been there –You join a meeting with a dozen of your colleagues to discuss an important organizational initiative. Everyone takes their turn on the soapbox talking about the problems and risks posed while sharing high level thoughts on what could be done about it…

And then the meeting ends.

The following month, the same thing happens and the soapbox returns. The ideas continue to pile up and the same conversations get spread out over years and your meetings turn into soapbox hell: everyone believes they’re aware of the problem,  and everyone has ideas for what the organization could do about it.

No momentum is generated.

No action steps are captured.

No concrete plans are formulated.

Nothing happens.

You wonder to yourself why your organization can’t get its act together. You read articles about the execution-oriented environment at other companies. You start to wonder if your organization is the only one plagued with this problem.

I can assure you––it’s not.

These types of strategic planning meetings that produce vague organizational initiatives with immense discussion and little action are endemic in enterprise environments. And it’s not because people don’t know what they’re talking about: a continually-surfaced issue means it’s real and worth doing something about.

So what do you do about it? How do you turn an amorphous blob of groupthink into action and momentum? How do you get out of soapbox hell?

While I certainly don’t underestimate the political realities of your organization, I do suggest exploring strategic planning frameworks and approaches to make these conversations more fruitful, clear logjams, and finally get moving from ideas to concrete actions.

Start With Values

It’s been said so often that it has become trite. But some things are trite for a reason.

Organizational values can and should be the North Star of any organization. They should be the litmus test you use to weigh and assess potential initiatives, and options within those initiatives.

The good news? Most companies have already identified their values (even if they aren’t actively or regularly referenced.) This means you already have a shared basis for making decisions.

Hold a particular problem up against the lens of your stated values, and if that problem prevents your organization from living those values out ––prioritize it. Proposed solutions consistent with your organizational values merit further exploration. If they don’t, simply discard them.

Starting from a shared, objective basis of truth can often be enough to jumpstart productive discussions and facilitate decision-making.

Clarify the Problem

An incredibly common problem in change initiatives is getting crystal clear on the problem. Team members seeing and talking about symptoms and issues assume they’re both understanding the problem the exact same way. Which leads to incongruent thinking and stalls productive discussion.

Suggest that the group state, in writing, what the problem is. Put it up on a whiteboard or a single slide deck. Debate it. Ask what proof you have. Get consensus on that problem statement before moving on.

A great tool in facilitating these conversations is the “Five Whys”. The simple process of asking “why” five times can help you get to the root cause of an issue. Doing this helps you discover that the “problem” is actually multiple problems, each at different levels of the organization. Usually there was a misalignment on which level – which “why” – people were talking about.

Help to force clarity of thought by writing this information down and placing it where everyone can see it.  This ensures that everyone is talking about the same thing surfacing areas of dormant disagreement previously buried under fuzzy language.

It might take several conversations to agree on that problem statement, but those conversations are worth the time. Clarifying the problem leads to more successful initiatives while avoiding  pain later down the road. Measure twice, cut once.

Quantify the Pain

Changing anything is hard and uncomfortable, which makes it easy to sit in meetings and talk without moving on a problem everyone has identified. The solution is to make sure everyone understands and agrees on how bad the problem is.

You’ll need to figure out a way to measure the pain that everyone agrees on, and you do whatever work is necessary to find that number. That number is your baseline, and puts a fine point on how big of a problem you’re dealing with. Simply put, it shows people why, despite the discomfort, it’s more important to go from current state to a new desired state.

The only way people or organizations change is by making the pain of standing still worse than the pain of moving.

Agree on the measure – in writing. Agree on the quantified number – in writing.

What Does Success Look Like?

With the problem identified and the current state magnitude captured, you can begin to focus the team on what “solved” looks like. What are the mission-critical priorities? How will you measure success?

Not being clear on what a solution means is the next big pitfall after not clearly identifying the problem. If you don’t clearly state what “done” means, the team will have different ideas of what success looks like. This can lead to infighting and put an otherwise promising organizational initiative at risk.

A helpful way to do this is to use your baseline number and get alignment on what a more desirable number looks like. Quantifying the desired state avoids fuzziness or misinterpretation of results. That number becomes the metric that galvanizes and focuses the team ultimately responsible for execution.

It’s unlikely you’re going to get that number to its utopian ideal––there will always be some waste, some unhappy customers, some errors. But by putting numbers to it, you have a clear target. A clear picture of current state and desired state.

How Do You Get There?

The problem is identified.

The magnitude captured.

The end state clearly stated.

Now you can ideate on solutions.

Your team will have no shortage of ideas. The trick is to turn those into a clear plan of action.

Feel free to start with a baseline brainstorming session. This gives everyone the chance to get their suggestions out there. Some ideas will be awful, and you’ll know it. But silence that part of your brain temporarily – giving people a voice increases the likelihood of adoption with the final plan later. I call this “unbridled ideation.”

Suggest to your team that you go outside the confines of the group to other stakeholders. There’s a good chance the people with the best ideas are those closest to the problem – the folks in the field. Present them with the problem and the desired end state and ask them how they’d solve it. Supplement your previous ideas with this list.

Now it’s time to facilitate prioritization as you’re armed with a huge list of potential solutions. Again, consensus is key.

Before you start to winnow the list, make sure the key team members all agree on what the criteria for evaluation should be. Write it down on paper. Allow for discussion and debate. But get to an agreed upon set of objective criteria before considering options.

A common agile framework I’ve seen is called ICE – Impact, Confidence, and Effort. The questions are straightforward:

  • What would be the Impact if this solution works?
  • To what degree of Confidence are we sure it will work?
  • How much Effort (time and cost) will it take to make it work? Do you have those resources realistically, or can you get them?

Another approach is to do a Pareto (or 80/20) analysis. Refer back to your Five Whys and the symptoms you identified. Look at your set of potential solutions and ask yourself which 20% of initiatives would solve 80% of the problem.

While there are many approaches, what matters is having a set of criteria that will help you hone in on the solutions that either represent low-hanging fruit, get you to a solution the cheapest, or provide the most upside.

It’s likely your solution will incorporate multiple pieces from this list.

Cast a Compelling Vision

Once you’ve honed in on a solution (or a set of high value solutions), turn it into a compelling narrative. Reiterate the problem, and why it’s so bad. Show how the identified solution will solve that problem. Crystalize what success will look and feel like for the organization and its stakeholders.

Without a compelling vision, your team won’t be able to sustain the momentum it needs to make it work. Making change happen is a slog. Even the best plans get bogged down in details. Motivation can wane. Progress can stall.

Consider giving your vision a name. A simple name or acronym that can serve as a compelling shorthand for the initiative. It can be hard to talk about an organizational initiative to improve Controls, Automation and Performance. But it’s easy to talk about how “CAP” is going.

Finally, it’s critical you communicate the vision. Share progress. Celebrate wins, no matter how small. Visions lose their impact unless they are continually renewed.

Don’t worry that you’re talking about it too much. Your team needs to constantly be reminded of what you’re doing and why it’s worth it: because the promised land will be so much better than the current state.

Certain team members will be more enthusiastic than others. That’s okay –  recruit these people into your merry band of change pirates. Make them feel like insiders. Equip them to spread the word. Make the circle bigger over time.

Don’t punish stragglers who weren’t believers from the beginning. You don’t care when they saw the light. You just care that they did. Welcome them with open arms and ask them how they want to get more involved.

Without a vision, organizational initiatives perish.

Change is Hard. That’s Why It’s Valuable.

Team members who can sit in meetings and talk about what’s wrong are plentiful. Team members who can turn problems into opportunities and make them happen are much rarer.

There are few ways to accelerate your career that work better than developing a reputation for making things happen. Hopefully this framework can help you become one of those people.

I’d love to hear how your initiatives are going. And if you get stuck, I’m happy to be a sounding board. Don’t hesitate to reach out at chris.long@manifold.group.