Lisagor: How to succeed in business

Develop a strategy that has clear and measurable objectives, columnist Michael Lisagor says.

There is a common thread that runs through the business growth assessment interviews I perform. Managers often complain about conflicting and changing priorities, vague targets and unpredictable results, unsound investment strategies, unclear lines of authority and responsibility, and management confusion and staff frustration.

Too many government and industry information technology leaders echo Lily Tomlin's lament: "I always wanted to be somebody, but I should have been more specific."

An effective business plan describes an organization's focus — its mission, vision and objectives — in terms that are easy to understand. There are myriad articles and books about how to write a business plan.

But the real challenge — what separates the slow-growth organizations from the barnstormers — is a leader's willingness to develop a business strategy that consists of clear and measureable objectives, has the support of key staff and is used throughout the year to measure progress and make decisions.

The age of omnipotent business leaders is over. And although this management model may produce near-term results, eventually even the most loyal subjects will rebel.

Unfortunately, a lot of managers still haven't learned that input from employees is crucial to successfully identifying the internal factors that will affect the organization's ability to sustain reasonable growth. And external changes in enabling technologies, budget and policy, market/citizen demand, competitor strategies and resource supply also need to be reflected in the business plan.

Business leaders who run their own strategic planning meetings are not always open to suggestions from staff about different strategies. How willing are employees to express their true opinions, especially in an open forum? A strong facilitator can usually level the playing field enough to allow an honest exchange of ideas, but even the world's most enlightened facilitator won't succeed if the leader resists change.

Incentive plans should reward behaviors and results that are consistent with strategic objectives. But strategic plans alone don't guarantee business growth — action plans do.

Strategic objectives must be translated into relevant and measurable actions assigned to individuals who are held accountable. Similarly, strategic actions should be monitored. If you don't care enough to ask your staff for a status report, they won't care enough to perform.

Finally, prioritize and estimate the cost and return on investment of each action. Then match all the actions with the operating budget. Only implement what is affordable. I've worked with several organizations that have developed a gigantic list of actions only to turn them over to managers for implementation in their spare time. This almost never works.

If I hear one more business manager declare, "We need to get it done with sweat equity," I'm going to scream! Aligning your investments with what you are talking about takes courage. But it's the only reliable way to become somebody. Just ask Lily. n

Lisagor is program co-chairman for the 2004 E-Gov Program Management Summit. He founded Celerity Works LLC in 1999 to help IT organizations accelerate and manage their business growth. He can be reached at

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