IMD International


Take the must-win battle journey

By Professors Peter Killing & Thomas Malnight, with Tracey Keys (July, 2006)

Excerpt from webcast: Must-win battles, creating focus to achieve key business goals (3:50)

Another month, another initiative? Strategy is top of most executive radar screens. But something isn’t working. Customers are less satisfied, profits are not growing and shareholders are disappointed. As one executive said: “How could we have such talented executives producing such mediocre results?”

It doesn't have to be this way. You can break the stalemate by focusing your organization’s resources and energy on the three to five critical must-win battles that your organization must win to achieve its most important goals. The must-win battle journey tackles the challenges of combining strategic focus and emotional commitment to your goals, simultaneously, to drive step-changes in business performance. There are three key steps along the way.

Excerpt from webcast: Must-win battles, winning back at the office (2:30)

Step 1: Prepare the journey
Every business sets out on its MWB journey from a different place - so every journey needs to be tailored to the organization's unique issues. Some are in great financial health. Others are in crisis. Some have a management team that is truly a team, others do not.

Differences in "starting conditions" will impact your choice of MWBs, their urgency, and the relative emphasis on the "hard" and "soft" dimensions of the journey. To prepare, first look closely at the starting conditions for your business - and ask yourself as a leader: “Am I ready to step up to the challenges the MWB process will bring?” This is not “business as usual."

Step two: Engage the team
The journey usually starts with the management team debating and selecting the battles. Opening “windows” – intellectual and emotional – first builds shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities ahead, critical for choosing the battles.

A well-chosen must-win battle:

  • Has impact: On the whole organization, not just one part of it.
  • Is externally focused: A common external goal creates energy.
  • Is tangible: Generalizations such as “innovate more!” don’t work.
  • Creates excitement: Goes beyond the incremental; captures the emotions!
  • Is winnable: Going "beyond the incremental" does not mean impossible.

Selecting the right battles is vital, but only a beginning. Key managers must buy into the chosen battles and give them their full emotional support. To accomplish this you need to create excitement around a shared future that everyone wants to be part of. The battles are the route to that future.

Step three: Make it happen
Shared priorities become real when people across the organization abandon their silo mentalities and give full commitment to the battles ahead. At the heart of must-win battle approach is instilling the discipline to do fewer things, better. This means focusing on your "Must-Dos", freeing-up resources from your "Must-Stops," and then taking the right actions at the right time.

From winning to transforming
A great strategy with no commitment will go nowhere. A great team without a clear sense of direction will do no better. The must-win battle approach, done right, will yield the right strategy, and build a real team at the top. Over time, your individual battles will be won or lost: the enduring victory that drives further success will be the new ways of working together that emerge from the must-win battle process. As one senior leader put it: “We began by winning battles; we ended by transforming our organization."

Professor Killing is Director of the Breakthrough Program for Senior Executives. Professor Malnight is Director of the Managing Corporate Resources program.

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