Have you ever worked on an initiative that's big, so big that it's extremely difficult to know all the moving parts? Did you hear the word “journey” over and over? Were there a series of large well known consultancies engaged and aggressively disengaged within a short span of time? Was the initiative revitalized in various incarnations and each and every time the incarnation failed? What you have is a big initiative. And the things you’re experience are normal.

A big initiative is a program or series of programs made up of strategic projects and supporting projects. These projects directly influence and impact the culture, leadership, management, organization structure, and systems. Big initiatives have been around for a very long time. Before being called such things as business reengineering, enterprise, and re-alignment, they are now called business transformation, governance, and digital. Though called very different things, big initiatives behave the same way and are prone to the same challenges. And because of today’s business climate, big initiatives are happening faster and more often than ever before.

Big Initiative Outcomes

Big initiatives are game changers that often overhaul an organization right down to its brass tacks. Typically the goals and outcomes of a big initiative include the following:

-          Improve effective decision making

-          Identifying improvement and revenue opportunities

-          Managing objectives and identifying the challenges for meeting them

-          Deepening business insight

-          Firming competitive advantage

-          Solidifying regulatory and compliance

-          Instilling a positive culture and experience

It’s this wide breadth of intertwining outcomes that make big initiatives very hard to get your arms around. Once these outcomes are untwined, the real work begins, keeping the initiative alive.


The best way to understand the challenges that kill big initiatives is to understand the natural cycles that drive these big initiatives. A natural cycle is how something naturally changes and progresses over time. They repeat time and time again and are the baseline for what is considered normal. Big initiatives are driven by three of these normal natural cycles.

Cycle #1 – Big Initiatives

The first natural cycle is how do big initiatives get established, grow, and dismantle.

Established – A big initiative usually doesn't start out as a big initiative. It starts out as a strategic project that gained recognition. The strategic project gained this recognition for its organizational value or for its leadership. The strategic project’s recognition and appeal attracts other initiatives that scaffold themselves to the project, expanding the project’s impact and size. When big enough, the project is pulled out of its silo and restructured to fit within a large cross organizational program. This restructuring enlarges the project further and gives the project high visibility. The project is then used as a promotional tool to a kick off other initiatives to support that strategic project. The project fuels the program’s exponentially growth. To manage this growth, projects are restructured, consolidated, and orchestrated into a single over arching initiative. This over arching initiative is the big initiative.

Grow – The big initiative builds momentum and expands in scope and impact. Under political and cultural pressures the big initiative fractures into silos. When the initiative grows, the silos grow. This growth continues until politic and cultural pressures slowdown and halts the big initiative. To reclaim momentum the big initiative is continuously restructured.

Dismantled – Under budget pressures the big initiative is dismantled down to a set of key strategic projects that are assigned to individual silos.

Cycle #2 – Organizational Support

The second natural cycle that drives a big initiative is about the management and team structure that supports that big initiative. How this structure expands, reorganizes, flatten, and dismantle.

Expand – Management for a big initiative starts out as a flat hierarchy supported by small teams. To accomplish more, these teams grow rapidly to meet the initiative’s needs. When a team becomes too time consuming to manage, the manager delegates management responsibilities to the team leads. To accomplish even more, teams are further expanded to support the team leads.

Reorganization – Under political pressures driven by unmet expectations, management is restructured. New managers are added and teams are reorganized to support the new management structure. Under political and cultural pressures, management and team structure continues to expand to meet the needs of the big initiative.

Flatten – Under budget pressures fuel by politics, the management hierarchy is flattened.

Dismantled – Under political, cultural, and budget pressures, bigger teams are dismantled down to small teams.

Cycle #3 – Leadership Focus

Leadership style is the third natural normal cycle that drives a big initiative.  How a leader’s style shifts focus in a big initiative from position, to message, to political, and back to position again

Position – A leader with a strong presence is chosen to lead the initiative. The leader effectively leads and aligns the initiative to a strong personal position. The initiative’s success and the leader’s credibility earn the leader the opportunity to captain a cross organization initiative.

Message – With a cross organization initiative, the leader works toe-to-toe with other leaders, all with opposing positions. These differences create friction among the leadership. To overcome friction and prevent fracturing, the leaders all agree on consistent messages for their initiative.

Political – Under cultural pressures the initiative stalls, Leaders engage in power posturing and aggressive politics. A war is fought over whose position and style will dominate the initiative.

Position – One leader emerges from the war relatively unscathed and becomes the new leader for the initiative. The leader aligns the initiative to a strong personal position.


The natural cycles that drive a big initiative show that politics, culture, and budget are the key challenges for big initiatives. These challenges slow the initiative down and break the imitative apart.  Rather than letting the natural order of things just happen, we can stop the cycle so our big initiatives stay healthy

There are three main approaches we can use to break the cycles and keep the initiative all on track.

Approach #1 – Restructure

It’s too common that a big initiative grows faster than the structure that houses it. To fill the vacuum strong positioned people enforce their style perpetuating negative politics. These politics spread fear and uncertainty through the initiative and throughout the culture. There is a push/pull dynamic between structure and how people politick and work within that structure. To reduce the politics, increase the certainty, and work towards a positive culture, we must incorporate the right structure to house politics, promote synergy, and establish unity to one paradigm.

Positive Politics – The right structure perpetuates the positives in politics. The right structure must foster healthy competition, strong relationships, and forward momentum. Politics must be a source of positive energy.

Synergy – The right structure promotes synergy by supporting key people and key initiatives. The right structure incorporates certainty, innovation, productivity, and job satisfaction. The right structure does not accommodate to the individual styles of key people, the right structure houses their styles and helps orchestrate complementary styles to work together and create synergy.

Unity to One Paradigm – The right structure is supported and reinforced by mentorship, training, and communications emphasizing one unified paradigm. Everyone from leader, to manager, to producer is positively motivated to support the structure and the paradigm.

As an on-going approach restructure the big initiative both inside and out according to the right structure. Confirm and reaffirm through measurements and key indicators that the new structure promotes positive politics, positive synergy, and constant structure support.

Approach #2 – Knowledge Framework

A big initiative grows big and grows big fast resulting in Information and knowledge growing exponentially. There is a lot to stay on top of, especially how things fit together and why they’re relevant. To stay ahead of the wave, we must understand how things fit together. Things such as goals, objectives, programs, portfolios, projects, processes, policies, requirements, risk management, time lines, and cost models to name a few. We also must understand how what we’re doing is relevant to us, the organization, and to all employees.  We must know how things fit together and how they’re relevant.

To reduce the struggle with the sheer volume of information of how things fit and are relevant, we must immediately house all this information in the right information framework. It is not enough to house this information. We need to easily consume this information, easily recall what we consumed, and act on this information. We must build the right framework to house knowledge for strategy, support, and relevance.

Strategy – The right framework provides historic, current, and future knowledge to reinforce strategy. The right framework helps us determine strategies, actions, and next steps and identify where the best opportunities and worst gaps are. The information and knowledge is structured to optimize retrieval and maximize memory retention.

Support – The right framework provides knowledge to better support the initiative through structure, management, leaders, teams, and decision making – especially budgetary decision making.

Relevance – The right framework helps build the case for why the initiative is relevant to the organization and why the initiative is relevant to individuals within the organization.

As an ongoing approach, establish a framework with processes, policies, and technologies to itemize, tie, and house all information and knowledge related to the initiative. Enforce standards to strongly structure information and knowledge to manage the growth, understandability, and ease of communication. Confirm and reaffirm through measurements and key indicators that the framework is effective for information management, knowledge management, budgetary decision making, planning, and cultural acceptance.

Approach #3 – Mentor Model

It is leadership’s job to make the sure the initiative is headed in the right direction. Leaders and managers with strong positions are creating friction amongst themselves fracturing an already siloed initiative. This fracturing spreads into the culture creating frustration, uncertainty, and fear. While politics and power posturing force the initiative apart, the initiative’s rapid growth opens up many advancement opportunities for soon-to-be leaders. To reduce the politics, siloing, and negative culture,  the right coaching and mentoring model is crucial. The right mentoring model instills a common paradigm, supports employee transitions to new roles, and motivates employees.

Paradigm – The right mentoring model sets the definition for the leadership paradigm. The paradigm deemphasizes captaining styles and emphasizes conceiving, mentoring, and collaborating styles. The model also establishes a common message to the organizational community – the unity of the initiative and the unity of leadership.

Transition – The right mentoring model helps identify, develop, and transition individuals to new roles. The model establishes effective strategists, analysts, managers, and leaders to fulfill strategic opportunities to support the initiative. The model further supports individuals through the required paradigm shifts by leveraging an individual’s strengths and natural style.

Energy – The right mentoring model promotes innovation, job satisfaction, productivity, positive culture, and positive leadership. The model also instills in each individual a purpose, passion, and inspiration that additively builds momentum into the initiative.

As an ongoing approach establish a mentoring model that identifies and develops strong leaders and skilled individuals to support the initiative. Motivate the key people and instill in them passion. Confirm and reaffirm through measurements and key indicators that the mentoring model promotes innovation, job satisfaction, productivity, positive culture, and positive leadership.

Summing it up    

Politics, culture, and budget are the big challenges that kill big initiatives. By keeping these challenges in check, we will develop thriving big initiatives that grow and grow people. Approaches such as restructuring, knowledge management, and mentoring models work really well in keeping big initiatives on the straight and narrow. These approaches are extremely effective when used in combination.

You have to have faith to keep the course. Working in big initiatives is not for the faint of heart. There is so much uncertainty, politics, and “churn” that unravels the best laid out plans. To lead these initiatives, a different kind of leader is needed, one that is willing to continuously grow and evolve to meet every new challenge the initiative faces.

Are you that leader?

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