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The final frontier of competitive advantage

Toby Elwin Blog, Organization Behavior

final frontier, project management, talent management, toby elwin

Talent and project management live long and prosper
with the Vulcan death grip.

Competitive advantage:  the final frontier. Today only two areas remain for competitive advantage:

  1. Talent management and
  2. Project management

Put another way, an organization has 2 ways to beat their competition:

  1. The capability to motivate people and
  2. The capability to reliably deliver projects

Talent As a Hard Asset

Hiring the right talent and keeping that talent motivated and engaged, is the great resource challenge that equalizes all organizations.

Presumably, all companies hire the best.  So, if you line up all the candidates for one job description across the industry, every company has to assume they would choose the best candidate.

Once that candidate starts, the resume is useless:

  • Culture takes over,
  • Politics take over,
  • Process takes over,
  • Hierarchy takes over,
  • Agenda takes over

That once-eager-go-getter with all the potential and promise? I am going to make a couple of generalizations:

  • People don’t take jobs to do a bad job;
  • When a job offer is extended, there is genuine excitement to join;
  • People don’t choose to join bad companies

If we work with these generalizations [believe me, economists and sociologists make far weaker generalizations], the way an organization manages talent and motivation becomes a competitive advantage.

The Project as Competitive Advantage

Strategy decomposed becomes a series of projects to implement.

Strategy comes and goes.

If you line up all the 3-ring binder strategic plans within an industry you would find very few that include some huge strategic bet that, if unmet, would bring a company to the brink of ruin. Strategy design is terribly easy, but the ability to operationalize an enterprise strategy, before the strategy becomes irrelevant, that is where organizations truly succeed.

An organization’s ability to implement a strategy is far more important than an ability to create a strategy.

A company that cannot implement their strategy has far more at risk than the company that implements the wrong strategy.

A strategic plan is only relevant when the goals, objectives, and actions produce a series of projects that move the organization, project-by-project, to achieve the strategy.  When an organization fails to reliably deliver projects on time, on budget, and within scope, they fail to deliver to expectation.

When projects fail, people fail.

When people fail, blame is assigned.

When blame is assigned, resentment builds.

A pattern of failed projects seeds doubt.  So, when new projects start, people are less inclined to volunteer to work on any project when failure is the pattern.

Those staffed or charged to lead new projects begin to see that the only people available to work on projects are those not essential to business; if they were important, they would not be available.

What manager would release an important employee to work on a project that will fail and risk the manager’s ability to meet their goals and their performance review at the same time?

Breakthrough or Throughput

Deliver on projects, build motivation.  Build motivation, deliver on projects more reliably.  Deliver more reliably, increase margins.  Increase margins, beat your competition. Breakthrough ideas are nice, but sustainable competitive advantage rarely comes from a breakthrough idea.

What is a breakthrough, though, is the ability to implement a breakthrough idea. I would prefer an organization that has high project throughput over the breakthrough idea.

Who Wins?

If your company and my company recruit the same person and your company can not motivate that person, but my company can keep that person motivated:  I win.

I’ll take an employee with half the technical skills who is motivated, over an employee with more technical skills who is unmotivated.  We maximize resources to survive and motivation management is resources management.

If your company and my company need a series of projects to roll out a new strategic plan and your company can not deliver on those projects, but my company can:  I win.

Who’s strategic plan is better is irrelevant.

Mr. Spock would note lax commitment to motivate talent or deliver projects, “a most illogical attitude“.