Lapsed Deadlines: A Silent Growth Killer of Midsized Companies

June  25, 2013 / / Robert Sher, Contributor / I’ve been asked by dozens of CEOs and other senior executives of midsized firms over the years about how to accelerate growth.

I’ve been asked by dozens of CEOs and other senior executives of midsized firms over the years about how to accelerate growth. After I discuss the basics (e.g., do they have a differentiated strategy that produces superior value for their customers?), I typically get quizzical looks when I offer this chestnut: Enforce your deadlines. Come down hard on people who treat them as movable goal posts. This may sound obvious and, for sure, a boring tactic. But for midsized companies, frittering away time is a silent killer of many growth strategies.

The reason is that midsized companies need a heightened sense of urgency to grow faster than usual.  Unlike a startup, where fear of imminent destruction drives action, they are usually no longer facing extinction. For mid-sized firms, needle-moving results are harder to produce, involving layers of management and teamwork. Too often, time starts slipping away from the company.  Management misses deadlines.  Poorly laid plans stumble, with no date-based benchmarks.  Soon, the sense of urgency is lost.

Despite the best of intentions and early successes, Goddard Systems, Inc., the King of Prussia, PA based national franchisor of The Goddard School preschool system— found itself in just this situation in 2007, when it passed the 200 location milestone.  During the rewrite of the franchisee training manual, deadline after deadline was missed.  Other pressing projects always seized priority and no one manager seemed to take responsibility for completing the manual, a key step in scaling the firm.  When new leader—and now CEO—Joe Schumacher joined the senior management team in 2007, he recognized the problem. Joe and the management team began working toward change.

Across many mid-sized companies, the mix of delayed projects and missed deadlines may include ERP upgrades, new product releases, quality programs, closing the books, new sales and marketing campaigns and more.

New proclamations from the CEO about urgency and commitment are a common reaction to the frustration coming from missed deadlines.  CEOs are increasingly bringing project managers into mid-sized companies, and while these new hires bring needed skills, they alone cannot change the culture of the company.

The shift in corporate culture toward treating time as a unique element has these prerequisites:  new executive-level blood as a catalyst for change, strong, long-term support of that executive by the CEO, visible performance benchmarks for the leadership team and a steady management cadence.  Of course, any wake-up call—such as a disaster, competitive win, or bad financial results—helps move the process along.

Most companies that let time slip by need an outsider acting at an executive level to change the environment.  That person might be a new CFO or other member of the C-suite, a consultant or interim executive, or even a new Chairman of the Board.  This requirement is especially true for executive teams which have worked together a long time.  The new leader must be a strong advocate for the change and start making it stick as soon as they arrive.  The shift to a time-based system must be supported by the CEO, who, along with the rest of the top team, must model the new behavior.

At Goddard Systems, Inc, now CEO Joe Schumacher, used his arrival in 2007 to shine a light on the way time seemed to slip away from the team.  Together with his senior team, he introduced discipline to meetings, keeping them on point, short and limited to essential participants.  The firm introduced the use of written business cases (formal write ups justifying the project), in order to differentiate high and low priority projects and precisely identify the resources required.  The firm has expanded to nearly 400 locations today, training the entire management team on the techniques of project management, which they believe to be a fundamental executive skill.  Their 2012 launch of Goddard Connect, a web-based portal which allows seamless communication and collaboration with and between franchisees, was very carefully planned, and the execution was exceptional—on time and on budget—a dramatic change from 2007.

Keeping mid-sized organizations marching forward on time requires good old fashioned management:   projects must be carefully planned, with clear steps and transparent deadlines.  Managers must meet regularly to review progress and make adjustments.  There can be no hiding from lack of achievement.  In addition to sound project management processes, each project must have a clearly identifiable, ultimately responsible leader. .  One of my favorite clarification techniques is the RACI model, described in this article dealing with problem meetings in which clear decisions are seldom made.

Inertia remains the biggest barrier to change.  Many executives are accustomed to tackling their most important tasks when they have time, not when the business needs it.  The evolution to a time-driven organization can feel like more pressure (which it is) and teams accustomed to relaxing may not be so interested in stepping up the pace.  Sometimes they need a jolt.  For example, one firm had passed many go-live deadlines to update its very old ERP system. It had recently begun a more diligent planning process for the migration, with the help of an outside consultant.  But when the old system crashed and stayed down for two days, it really shook the team up, so they re-doubled their efforts to make the transition.  Now they are scheduled to go live three months ahead of plan.

There is a saying “Never let a good setback go to waste”, meaning that all such setbacks—like losing a key account, competitor triumphs and economic downturns—can be employed as motivation to pick up the pace of progress.

One of the hallmarks of high-performance teams is that they treat time as a special element.  Every passing day should move the company further along toward its goals.  Each team member should act with the knowledge that they’re in a race with the competition.  Treating every hour as an opportunity to succeed  becomes a key part of the culture.

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