Fighting the right battles

Perhaps a more appropriate title for this post might be “not fighting the wrong battles.”

Over the past few weeks, I have come to a realisation that at various points in my career I have spent too long trying to achieve things that were actually impossible.

They weren’t impossible because they couldn’t be done. They were impossible because something about the organisation made them so.

Sometimes these were small projects, sometimes major programmes of change. The detail is irrelevant. The point is that, even though I could persuade important people to join me on the journey, I didn’t spot that success depended on a number of factors that would never fall into place.

So what are the right battles? Simple: the ones that are genuinely winnable. Anything else is a waste of effort. Hope rarely triumphs against institutional inertia. No matter how much someone wants something to happen, if success depends on someone else who doesn’t care or who actively works against it, it will never happen.

What does winnable look like? The key is to be sure about the essential components. The following questions should help.

  • What is the bare minimum to demonstrate success?
  • What resources are needed to make the project work?
  • Will the support you are promised really materialise, or are people just paying lip-service to your ideas?

The first question is probably the most important, but the hardest to answer. It’s important because you have to know when a project comes to an end. Goals like ‘creating a knowledge culture’ are really difficult because they seems to promote a worthwhile end, but it is impossible to say when the job is done. If something can’t be said to be complete, its success or failure cannot be assessed. What measurable change is there?

Breaking a vague notion into measurable components then leads to the next two questions, which are simply a means of gauging how likely it is that the end might be reached. Few projects, especially in the knowledge context, can be completed without significant assistance from other areas of the organisation:

  • IT: is this a technology project that needs to fit with other things that the business is demanding?
  • HR: does your project affect the way incentives are managed across the organisation? Is that an easy change, or something that demands significant realignment?
  • Finance: few things are free — what other costs are coming up, and how are they prioritised?

The reality is that few organisations can do everything that might be suggested. Projects will often be dropped because there isn’t the resource this year or because too many other things are happening in a similar area. But if the things you want to achieve keep hitting resistance, it is more likely that your goals don’t fit what the organisation is comfortable with. In other words, you’re trying to achieve the impossible.

What to do in such a situation? In general, there are only three real options when faced with difficult challenges: accept things; change them; or leave.

  • If change in the organisation is impossible, can your goals be achieved in different ways?
  • If no change is possible, is there any merit in staying just to maintain the status quo (and possibly make some minor tweaks)?
  • If neither of these is attractive, take the decision to leave as quickly as possible. The sunk cost fallacy applies.

 

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