In Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he asks us all to “begin with the end in mind.”  Something that holds true in for us as individuals and also for organizational projects.  Of course, it is important to pick the right end… so to speak.   

I recently found a fantastic 20 year old article in a Harvard Business Review publication entitled, “Successful Change Programs Begin with Results,” that really drives this point home.  In it, Robert H. Schaffer and Harvey A. Thomson discuss the difference between “activity-centered” and “results-driven” projects.  In an activity-centered project, the focus of success is the activity itself.  They give a great example of a company undergoing a “total quality” improvement program that measured success by how many employees had gone through the training.  A results-driven project differs in how success is measured.  Instead of measuring the activity itself, success is gauged by measuring a business objective, such as reducing parts defects on a manufacturing line.

In both of the examples listed above, the companies had similar goals.  However, by making their goal the training activity itself, the activity-centered project lost sight of the real reason they started the program to begin with – to reduce manufacturing defects.  Unsurprisingly, the results-driven project did much better.

Too often in my experience, organizations seek to treat the symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had customers call asking for help in addressing the lack of traffic to their SharePoint site. They suggest changes such as an improving the UI or updating the navigational structure —all with the focus of driving employee traffic to the site. They fail to understand that they are overlooking the true problem: whether or not their SharePoint site is positively impacting teams’ performance and the bottom-line. By finding ways to improve processes across an organization, we can give users a real reason to use the site.

Here are a few key takeaways:

  • Measure improvements in performance, not the activity itself.
  • Look for short term improvement goals that will lead to long term benefits. 
  • Test and measure for success.
  • Put a process in place only when you are expecting it to affect a specific and measurable result.

I completely agree with the authors when they suggest that taking the time up front to align your project with measurable business-oriented results will successfully drive the change your organization is looking for.   It was true 20 years ago and it will still be true 20 years from now!

I highly recommend reading the full article. You can find it on the Harvard Business Review site.  It is well worth the $6 or so they are charging for it.