The Impact of Organisational Capabilities on Project Success

David Trafford, Peter Boggis and Frank Dannenhauer argue that one of the principal reasons why delivering projects aimed at implementing strategy remains a challenge is that insufficient attention is given to the embedded organisational capabilities that define an organisation’s trajectory. After all, the purpose of this type of project is to change the trajectory of the organisation – and increasingly that of its partners.

Delivering projects that are aimed at implementing strategy remains a challenge for most organisations. According to John P Kotter, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, only about 5% of large-scale transformational change projects are successful. Research by the Standish Group covering 175,000 projects in the USA with a combined budget of US$250 billion, found that 53% overspent and 82% overran. An analysis of 1,500 global projects worth US$245billion by Oxford University’s Said Business School concluded that IT projects are more likely to fail than large projects in other sectors, such as construction. These studies confirm what we already know: that over the past 25 years the success rate has not noticeably improved and that in all probability the project you’re currently working on will not deliver its intended outcomes

Many explanations are given, and as many solutions offered, most of them focusing on improving the ‘mechanics’ of project management and the skills of project managers. While better project managers, charters, governance, risk assessments and stakeholder management are necessary, they are not sufficient as, in our view, they do not address the underlying reason why most projects fail to deliver their intended outcomes.

The purpose of strategy is to change an organisation’s trajectory

All organisations are on a trajectory, a path that takes them from where they are now to a future state. In some cases this could be a default future, which is where the organisation will end up if no action is taken, other than that currently planned. In most cases it will Impact of Organisational Capabilities Figure 1be a target future, based upon a recognition that the default future is unacceptable and that strategies and actions are needed to change the organisation’s trajectory away from its default future to its target future. This change of trajectory invariably involves implementing strategic choices through one or more strategy implementation projects. Examples of such projects include: establishing a new business unit, launching a new product, entering a new market, introducing a new channel to market, integrating an acquisition, introducing a new IT platform, reengineering business processes or moving production or service to a lower-cost geography. In all these cases the purpose is to change the trajectory of the organisation to a greater or lesser degree. Increasingly this also involves changing the trajectory of external partners, as is often the case in joint ventures.

If the purpose of strategy is to make informed choices about an organisation’s target trajectory then the purpose of strategy implementation projects is to turn strategic intent into reality.

Factors that determine an organisation’s trajectory

If we accept that the purpose of strategy implementation projects is to change an organisation’s trajectory, then the first question to answer is: what factors determine the current trajectory and how difficult will it be to change their impact? Only then can we decide the best actions to take to change the trajectory.

There are many reasons why an organisation is following a given trajectory. Some, like global economic trends, regulation, and market demographics, are external factors and are largely outside management’s control. The majority of reasons however are internal and can therefore – in theory – be controlled.

These internal factors include technology (specifically legacy technology), organisational structure, processes, skills, mindset (based upon assumptions, beliefs and norms), leadership and past winning strategies. In effect these factors are a reflection of the organisational capabilities that have built up over time.

Examples of organisational capabilities that exist in many organisations include: the ability to manage cost, research and development of new technologies; deliver customer service; manage processes; innovate; integrate acquisitions; manage vendors; be health and safety compliant; deliver IT services; and develop talent. See below for a further explanation of organisational capabilities.

Organisational capabilities differ from individual competencies

Organisational capabilities are formed from a combination of shared mental models and frameworks; common language; beliefs and mindset; processes and practices; conventions; shared experiences and individual skills. Significantly, as they become embedded in the organisation they are not lost when individuals leave.

The more embedded they become the more they shape organisational culture. They also establish organisational habits, where people collectively do things in a particular way without consciously knowing how or why.

In many respects they act like muscles – the more they are used the stronger they get.

While competencies are held by individuals, capabilities are held within organisations. Obviously it’s not possible for an organisation to have capabilities without having competent people. But these people don’t need to be super-smart or highly intelligent because organisational capabilities are developed through training, application and practise.

Individually and collectively organisational capabilities act in ways that determine an organisation’s trajectory. Their role is important as they enable the organisation to pursue its existing strategy. However, when the strategy changes and implementation projects come up against organisational capabilities that are not in line with the target trajectory, the project will fail if the impact of the existing organisational capabilities is not considered or is underestimated. In these situations organisational capabilities that contributed to past success are often seen as the organisation’s ‘antibodies’ to change.

It’s important to remember that the dominant organisational capabilities that exist in organisations today were developed for a reason: to establish and maintain the organisational trajectory required at that time. As the strategy changes, a different portfolio of organisational capabilities will inevitably be required. Successfully changing an organisation’s trajectory therefore involves introducing new organisational capabilities, strengthening others and weakening some. See below for an example of where a number of UK retailers failed to acknowledge the impact of established organisational capabilities and were not able to put new ones in place to change their trajectory to an e-tailing future.

The challenge of changing trajectory from retailing to e-tailing

While online sales continue to grow year-on-year, traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers have found it increasingly difficult to compete. As a result, several established UK retail brands, including HMV, Comet and Jessops have gone into receivership.

Industry commentators are quick to point out that they failed because they didn’t recognise the threat from online competitors and were too slow in changing their business model. Easy to say, but the organisational capabilities of these companies were those needed for high street retailing. It’s therefore not surprising that they failed to recognise and acquire the capabilities needed to change their trajectory to an e-tailing future.

If the organisational capabilities are aligned with the target organisational trajectory they can increase the chances of project success by ‘pulling’ the organisation to its target future. Equally, if they are not aligned they can ‘anchor’ an organisation to its current trajectory and thereby increase the chances of project failure.

Identifying organisational capabilities

Some organisational capabilities are easily recognisable, while others only become apparent when they are experienced. Equally, not all organisational capabilities will have the same impact in determining an organisation’s current or target trajectory – and thereby project success. It’s therefore important to identify those that have potentially the most impact – both positive and negative. The challenge is that organisational capabilities are often difficult to identify, particularly for those people in the organisation who are so close to them that they may not be able to see them. The idiom ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ is particularly true in this case. An effective approach is to start by identifying the organisational capabilities needed to ‘pull’ the organisation to its target trajectory, and then identify those that are ‘anchoring’ it to its current trajectory. The following questions provide guidance.

‘Pulling’ organisational capabilities

  1. What is the target organisational trajectory that the project aims to establish? How different is this to the current trajectory?
  2. What organisational capabilities are needed to ‘pull’ the organisation to the target trajectory?
  3. To what extent are these organisational capabilities currently in place? (See section below on assessing the impact of organisational capabilities.)
  4. How could the impact of these ‘pulling’ organisational capabilities be increased or introduced?

‘Anchoring’ organisational capabilities

  1. What is the current trajectory that the project aims to change?
  2. What organisational capabilities are ‘anchoring’ the organisation on this trajectory?
  3. What is the strength of these ‘anchoring’ organisational capabilities? (See section below on assessing the impact of organisational capabilities.)
  4. How could the impact of these ‘anchoring’ capabilities be reduced?

It’s important to note that some of the most impactful ‘anchoring’ organisational capabilities are hidden. Not intentionally hidden – but so embedded in how the organisation operates that they are difficult to identify. Furthermore, many are omni-present and they drive the way everything is done. As a result it makes it difficult for people within the organisation to appreciate that they exist, and equally difficult for them to appreciate the need to introduce new ones and ‘retire’ others.

It’s important to remember that today’s organisational capabilities were the source of past success, and assumed by many who currently practise them to be the source of future success. See below for an example of where an organisation acquired another company in order to get access to new organisational capabilities.

The purpose of an acquisition was to acquire new organisational capabilities

A very successful UK builders’ merchant recognised that its digital presence fell short of what its newer competitors were offering. It therefore decided to ‘change its trajectory’ by launching a project to give its customers full omni-channel capability.

From the outset all the disciplines of good project management were followed. The CEO chaired the steering group, an experienced project manager was assigned and budget was secured. But the project soon ran into difficulties. The CEO became frustrated with the lack of ambition of the project team and was concerned that traditional thinking – that had made the company very successful in the past – was stifling innovative thinking.

Recognising that the project was not going anywhere and that the capabilities needed to realise his omni-channel vision were not within his company, he took the radical step of acquiring one of his new competitors who had the omni-channel capabilities he was looking for.

His challenge then was to bring these capabilities into the rest of the company without diluting or even destroying what he had acquired.

Assessing organisational capabilities

Impact of Organisational Capabilities Figure 2Assessing organisational capabilities can be done in many ways, the best being to assess their level of impact. The greater their impact, the greater they will anchor an organisation to its current trajectory.

When assessing ‘anchoring’ capabilities consider the following two questions:
i. To what degree is the organisational capability ‘anchoring’ the organisation to its current trajectory?
ii. How difficult would it be to weaken the impact of the organisational capability?

When assessing ‘pulling’ capabilities consider:
i. To what degree is the ‘pulling’ organisational capability currently in place?
ii. How difficult would it be to strengthen the impact of the organisational capability?

For each question a simple grading of 1 to 5 is sufficient, where 1 is low and 5 is high. Ideally the assessment would be done by a number of individuals and groups, including outside advisors who are able to give an external perspective. The aim is to create insight and alignment through dialogue, rather than a scientific analysis of how the organisation operates. The results can then be mapped onto the frameworks shown above.

Changing the impact of organisational capabilities

The above assessments identify those organisational capabilities needed to ‘pull’ the organisation to its target trajectory and those that are ‘anchoring’ it to the present. It’s important at this stage to remember that today’s organisational capabilities were the source of past success, and assumed by many who currently practise them to be the source of future success.

The challenge is changing the relative impact of the ‘pulling’ and ‘anchoring’ organisational capabilities, while at the same time maintaining those whose impact should continue. This we believe can only be done by understanding the competing commitments and underlying assumptions. What we mean by this is that while people might be committed to the ‘pulling’ organisational capabilities, they also might remain committed to those seen as ‘anchoring’ the organisation to its current trajectory. The disruptive impact of these competing commitments should not be underestimated as they can consume considerable management time and resources.

In our view transitioning the impact of different organisational capabilities is a Learning Journey for the organisation, one that is best achieved by people experiencing the value of the ‘pulling’ organisational capabilities and thereby shifting their commitment to the target trajectory.

Approaches to changing the impact of organisational capabilities will be covered in a future article.

Final thought

Don’t think about any strategy implementation project as a set of work products that produce deliverables – but rather as a series of activities that change an organisation’s trajectory to one that takes it to its target future. Furthermore, remember that the current trajectory is a result of the capabilities that the organisation has built up over time, many of which have become so embedded and omni-present that they are difficult to recognise until they are experienced. When a project comes up against organisational capabilities that are not in line with the target trajectory the project will inevitably fail. By identifying and assessing the impact of organisational capabilities on an organisation’s trajectory we are better able to increase the chances of project success.

Key points revisited

Our point of view on the impact of organisational capabilities on project success can be summarised as follows:

  1. The purpose of strategy implementation projects is to change the trajectory of an organisation.
  2. An organisation’s current trajectory is largely determined by the organisational capabilities that have been built up over time – and which have made it successful in the past.
  3. Organisational capabilities act like muscles: the more they are used the stronger they become.
  4. When a project comes up against organisational capabilities that are not in line with the target trajectory the project will inevitably fail.
  5. Changing an organisation’s trajectory involves reducing the impact of ‘anchoring’ organisational capabilities, introducing new ‘pulling’ organisational capabilities and strengthening the impact of others.

We welcome your thoughts.

David Trafford
david.trafford@formicio.com

Peter Boggis
peter.boggis@formicio.com

Frank Dannenhauer
frank.dannenhauer@formicio.com

Formicio Insight Article: The Impact of Organisational Capabilities on Project Success

 
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