How Well-Intentioned Leaders Can Sabotage a Balanced Scorecard Implementation

  • It’s well documented that organizations struggle with change. In one of many studies on the topic, Michael Beer of Harvard Business School estimates failure rates as high as sixty percent. Of course, you don’t need a Harvard professor to tell you what you’ve most likely experienced many times during your working life. So what, or who is to blame for the high flameout rate of change? Many experts point the finger at the organization’s employees, who we often assume are weary from past efforts, and generally skeptical of anything that comes down from the executive floor. A typical lament I hear from executives is: “If only our employees would come around, accept the change and understand how it benefits the company, everything would work out.” But is it really the rank and file who are responsible for the glut of change failures plaguing organizations in every corner of the world? A recent conversation with a client implementing the Balanced Scorecard in a large public sector organization has me re-thinking this basic assumption.

When discussing what I considered to be ‘best practice’ change principles with this client, I provided tip after tip about how to win over those on the front lines, including using varied communication mediums, getting everyone involved, defining the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) message, and many other nuggets gained from over twenty years in the field. He nodded his head throughout, but when I finished he offered something I think all of us tend to overlook in change management initiatives – the unintentional sabotage of well-intentioned leaders.

People ascend to leadership for many reasons: knowledge of the organization and its markets, the ability to craft a compelling vision, and often through the ability to deftly negotiate office politics. Smart and savvy executives, those who have been around the organizational block more than a few times, not only possess the intellectual skills necessary to lead, but experience has taught them how to run through the organizational minefield relatively unscathed. It is those leaders that may unintentionally sabotage change efforts.

When an organization introduces a new program, it’s not uncommon for these seasoned leaders to dive in headfirst, forge ahead at light speed, and expect everyone below to follow suit. They value speed as paramount, look for quick wins, but see a structured implementation approach as potentially limiting. If problems do arise in the chain of command above them they can maneuver through the organizational obstacle course thanks to experience, knowledge, and power.

In the case of a Balanced Scorecard initiative, this need for speed can manifest itself in a leader’s efforts to have just a few individuals craft a Strategy Map for the entire organization, do so in one short meeting, and have the document ready for organizational use the following day. But when velocity of development is the top priority for a Scorecard effort, the product that emerges tends to miss the mark in several ways: its contents don’t reflect the careful thought, debate, and dialog necessary to create a truly strategic document, it can be overly simplistic or conversely unduly complex, and perhaps most importantly it won’t generate the buy-in of those responsible for executing the objectives.

There is little doubt that creating momentum is vital to any change effort, but most initiatives (Balanced Scorecard included) require a certain amount of seasoning and review before being able to serve as a key tool in decision-making. Additionally, the Scorecard, again as with all change programs, requires a steady and structured approach if you hope to achieve optimal benefits from its use. Employees throughout the organization must be able to clearly grasp how the Scorecard fits into the larger context of the organization’s journey; how it helps transform strategy into reality, and guides day-to-day actions they’ll take.

What is most important for results-driven leaders to recognize is that structure serves a valuable purpose not only in guiding the implementation but also acts as a soothing balm for employees not quite prepared to journey into the unknown represented by the initiative. As with all things, a balanced approach is required when implementing the Scorecard system, one that recognizes both the imperative to get things done quickly and the importance of a well-thought-out roadmap for success.

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-Haig R. Nalbantian, Richard A. Guzzo, Dave Kierrer, and Jay Doherty, Play to Your Strengths (New York, NY, McGraw-Hill, 2004).

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