The final step on the road to results is frequently the hardest. It is the successful execution of the plan. Many companies have foundered because they couldn't accomplish the objectives laid out in a plan. Many otherwise insightful managers have accurately diagnosed their point of departure, have carefully mapped out their point of arrival—and then have gotten lost on the journey.
Managers often fail to bring about performance improvement because there are so many ways to fail. The organization may not have the right skills. The right people may not be in the right places. Change leaders may underestimate the importance of incentives, of communication, of monitoring progress.
But the fundamental reason for failure is that people in an organization are often unaware of the need for performance-improving change and therefore prefer their accustomed ways of doing things. Some may actually work to undermine the leader's efforts.
Despite the obstacles, at least one group of managers succeeds regularly at bringing about performance improvement. They don't win every time, by any means—in fact, according to one estimate they fail to recoup their initial investment close to 40 percent of the time. But they win often enough, and big enough, to earn considerable returns for their investors. We're referring, of course, to the managers employed by private equity (PE) firms.
How can you take a page from the private-equity book and lead change successfully? How can you move as rapidly as possible from your point of departure to your point of arrival? How can you carry out the plan you have devised, ensuring that it unfolds the way it is supposed to—or at least as much as possible, given the likelihood that unforeseen events will affect it? It won't happen by itself.
At Bain we like to say that successful managers "plot" change. It turns out that PLOTTM is a useful acronym for the steps involved. In keeping with our principle of process simplicity, there are only four central categories. And mastering each of these and you will increase your odds of successfully navigating the road to results.
Learn about PLOT change on Bain.com
Implications for the general manager:
- Plan: be sure you have defined your points of arrival and departure, build consensus around both, and reinforce the few critical initiatives that will get you from one to the other during your tenure.
- Lead: inspire the troops, align the leadership around the critical imperatives, and build a culture that supports change.
- Operate: drive initiatives and quick wins and celebrate successes. Hold people rigorously accountable, and put explicit cues in place to reinforce your message. Put incentives in place that reinforce your key imperatives and richly reward performance.
- Track: measure your performance with dashboards, and act on the results—bank your successes, trigger your contingency plans when necessary, and raise the bar if you achieve your point of arrival.
- Prepare the handoff to your successor. A forward point of arrival that conforms to these four laws and is realistic, compelling, and motivational may be the most important legacy you leave.