Must-Win Battles: Lessons from Successful and Failed Journeys

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Peter Killing and Thomas Malnight are professors of business strategy at IMD, the Switzerland-based business school, and Tracey Keys is a consultant. In their book, Must-Win Battles: How to Win Them, Again and Again, published by Wharton School Publishing, they argue that rather than spreading their resources too thin, companies must focus on three to five key challenges — must-win battles (MWBs) that are crucial to achieving their business goals. A well-chosen MWB, the authors say, must make a real difference, be market focused, create excitement, be specific and tangible, and be winnable. This excerpt from the book’s conclusion highlights what can be learned from successful and failed MWB journeys.



Five Lessons from Successful MWB Journeys


Lesson 1: View a successful MWB kick-off event as only the starting point of your journey. Real success will be determined by what happens back at the office.


At more than 90% of the kick-off events we have attended, the leader and the team left the event feeling enthusiastic and committed to the must-win battle agenda and a new way of working together. With proper preparation and facilitation, and by drawing on the good will of participants, most executives are able to run effective events. But the real test is after the kick-off. The choices and promises made at the event must now become reality and shape the organization’s actions and ways of working. And that is the more difficult part!



Some of the most successful MWB leaders we have worked with have ended their kick-off event almost overwhelmed by the experience. “What have I gotten myself into?!  Will we really be able to follow through with all this? Am I up to the task?” But, perhaps driven by their unease, these same people have shown an extraordinary passion, persistence, and commitment to follow-up activities. They have used the journey to challenge themselves and their organization to move to higher levels of performance. The journey, not the kick-off event, was where they personally defined success and was what drove them forward every day.



Lesson 2: The most successful MWBs are those that tap into the groups’ aspirations and inspire everyone to do things differently.


Early in the book, we stressed that must-win battles should make a real difference, be market focused, be tangible, and be winnable. These things are indeed important. But we also said that a well-chosen MWB is one that has the potential to create excitement in the organization. Our conclusion now, after several years of working with MWB teams, is that choosing MWBs that can create organizational excitement is probably the single most important success factor. Excitement leads to commitment, and commitment leads to success. The MWBs themselves almost become “brands” within the organization — not just slogans, but the tangible means by which the group is going to win together.



A memorable example of this was demonstrated at a follow-up event held two years after the start of an MWB journey. The purpose of the event was to assess progress and chart the course ahead. Interestingly, less than a third of the 45 executives attending the event had attended the initial kick-off session. (The movement was largely based on positive promotions or transfers, not terminations!) Even though most had not been present at the birth of the journey, these 45 managers had become so committed to the MWBs that any suggestion of changing them was strongly rejected. “These battles are why we are succeeding today! We can’t change them.” There was real passion as everyone saw both today’s success and the possibility of more. However, we should also note that while the MWBs’ titles did not change, the group significantly raised the performance targets and tasks connected with each. 



The executive leading this journey made two observations about creating excitement and commitment. First, he believed that the battles that created the most excitement were those that were externally focused. He observed that while internally focused battles (which he referred to as “enablers”) might instill passion at the beginning of the journey, over time demanding external battles were the ones that created real commitment. Second, he noted that the most energizing MWBs were those that involved many parts of the organization. Battles that impacted only a single area of a business may be important, but they will never create the commitment necessary to breach silo walls and energize the whole organization.



Lesson 3:  Balance the “carrot and stick” in leading your MWB journey.


Most must-win battle journeys — if they are to be successful — require behavior change on the part of key people in the organization. Without change, there will be no success. One of the hallmarks of effective MWB journey leaders is their ability to employ a judicious mix of incentives and sanctions to bring about the necessary changes in the behavior of the people who matter most.



In most organizations, everyone knows the “special cases”; executives who continue to resist change and maintain their old ways of working in spite of promises made at the kick-off event and subsequent pressure from the top. Because everyone knows who these people are, they become an often-discussed measure by which the commitment of the leader to the must-win battle journey is gauged. This is why not dealing with the special cases threatens the credibility of the leader and the entire journey.



Addressing senior colleagues who are resisting the new way of working is a difficult personal challenge for many journey leaders. They often know these individuals well, and may have worked with them for years. They may be nearing the end of their career, and it can be tempting to let them finish on a high. But to be successful, a journey leader must have the ability to make the tough personal calls and to implement them in the right way. Often, there is no need for a “public execution,” but you must move the resisters out of the way. The message has to be clear: We will all play by the new rules.  


Lesson 4: Enlarge the group of people leading the journey. The broader the leadership, the greater the probability of success.


We have observed that although the most successful MWB journey leaders stay centrally involved in their journey, they move quickly to involve and engage other leaders. The first move is to build a leadership team for each battle. But each of these teams needs to recruit additional leaders as they cascade their battle down into the organization. The more people in the organization who are involved in leading the journey, the broader the ownership and commitment will be, and the higher the chance of ultimate success. And the quicker this can be done, the better.



In Chapter 7, “Engaging the Organization,” we stated that successful leaders make the MWBs the dominant agenda item for their meetings and focus their questions again and again on MWB progress. We have seen this occur many times. But to be really successful, the leader cannot be the only one in the organization doing this. The top team must be as consumed by the MWB agenda as the leader, and their passion and single-mindedness must in turn spread below them. This means that a critical skill for the journey leader is the ability to choose, and develop as necessary, other strong leaders. The leader who prefers to be surrounded by people less able than himself or herself will not lead a successful journey.



Lesson 5: A MWB journey is not a quick fix. Persistence, discipline, and continually raising performance targets over time will enhance your prospects of success.


During the course of any MWB journey, there will be temptations to abandon it, to follow the fads of the moment and launch new initiatives. The most successful leaders avoid these temptations. This does not mean they don’t revisit decisions, reformulate individual battles, or reexamine what is going on inside and outside the firm. But this process of reassessment is predominately used to reshape or fine-tune battles and raise performance standards and almost never used to decide to move in a whole new direction.


Repeating the same messages over and over again can get boring, as can always asking the same questions. But it has to be done. Not many must-win battles are won in just a few months, and changing the way an organization functions will take even longer. Many leaders get tired, and all get discouraged, at least from time to time. The key factor is to sustain your belief, and the organization’s belief, in the journey and the battles. Discipline, persistence, and focus over time, and the continual raising of performance standards, as opposed to continually launching new initiatives, are the ultimate hallmark of the most successful journeys.  



Three Lessons from Failed MWB Journeys


Not all journeys succeed. A few fail at the kick-off event. Others stall immediately after the group returns to the office because the energy and commitment created at the kick-off was never transmitted to the broader organization. Still others die gradually over time. Drawing on insights from some of the failures we have witnessed, we offer three lessons on what to avoid.



Lesson 6: Avoid creating superficial must-win battles that will allow personal agendas to flourish and silos to strengthen.


Some kick-off events sow the seeds of future failure. The problem is superficiality (a lack of depth) in the specification of the must-win battles. Nice labels are put on each battle, but the detailed choices that need to accompany them are not made. You will never finalize every relevant detail at a kick-off event, but the more detailed the output, the more specific the definitions, the clearer the choices, and the more thoroughly debated the conclusions, the more likely it is that there will be real changes back at the office. Agreement only on high-level “slogans” that leave room for maneuvering and allow personal agendas to continue to flourish is easy to reach, but will not change anything.



In our experience, there are two main causes of superficiality at a kick-off event. The first is inadequate preparation. If information, data, and analysis are not structured and available to all, the discussions at a kick-off event will focus on the data (or lack of it) and not on the choices. The second cause is an unwillingness to take on conflict, to “put the fish on the table,” and get the real issues into the open. Avoiding conflict does not make it disappear. And if you cannot address and resolve conflicts at an off-site session, do not expect that they will resolve themselves when the group returns to the office. Superficial choice means no choice. Superficial agreement means no agreement.



Lesson 7: Avoid losing momentum. In the first 45 days back at the office, you must lay the foundations and legitimize the journey.


One of the most disappointing journeys we have witnessed involved a team of highly capable executives at a major professional services firm. They faced significant challenges arising from major changes in their industry, and at the same time had to deal with leadership succession issues at the top of the organization. In spite of strong differences of opinion on some issues, all members of the group had a very high level of commitment to the firm, and all wanted their group to become a “real team.”



The kick-off event was a success. Sensitive issues were addressed, and there was strong commitment to major changes in the group’s agenda going forward, and to the ways they would work together. Great so far! But that is where things stalled.


On returning to the office, the leader decided to postpone taking the MWB agenda forward until some supporting changes were made in the organization. “We just need to slow down for a moment. We will get back to it soon.” Needless to say, they never did. One year later, many team members talked about the missed opportunity. Not only would they need to find a new way to energize the team, they would have to over come the additional skepticism: “Why will it be different this time?”



So, do not postpone action after your kick-off event. The first 45 days back at the office are a critical window of opportunity. There will never be a time when the top team is more ready for change. Postponement breeds cynicism, skepticism, and failure.



Lesson 8: Do not allow early success to make you overconfident and overly reliant on techniques that worked for you in the early stages of the journey. Keep listening to your organization.


Probably the most disappointing failures are those where everything starts well, but over time the leader becomes overconfident, perhaps even arrogant, and loses touch with what is going on in the organization. One telltale sign of this is when the leader starts falling into ritualistic patterns of activities, perhaps based on what worked in the past, without thinking through what is really needed at this stage of the journey.



Employees may sense that events are being held for their own sake — because last year’s similar event was a great success. But the impact will be reduced because people are smart and recognize patterns. “Here we go again,” they say, or “I know exactly what we will do next.” The problem is compounded when the leader stops listening, sure that he knows all the answers because he has heard all the questions before. 



One of the points that successful leaders often make is that you need to create an element of surprise in your journey — to delight and re-energize people with the unexpected. Don’t let the journey get stale. But equally important, don’t let yourself get stale. Successful journeys cannot run on autopilot. You need to stay fresh and stay involved.




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