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Closing the Gap between Objectives & Execution

The 4 Disciplines of Execution

I really love my job. I get to work with some fantastic delegates, sponsors and leaders; not to mention my Eagle Training colleagues. But, when it comes to working with leaders and directors, one feature of organisational life comes up time and again. They lament their organisation’s inability to follow through on its biggest goals. As Stephen Covey once said, “Most organisations don’t fail because they lack SMARTs (objectives)”. 

The Whirlwind

No, the biggest reason people and organisations fail to execute on goals is “the whirlwind”.  For those of you who have never heard of it, the whirlwind is the day job; it’s the things that must get done to run the business. It destroys the execution of larger goals. It wins when the organisation has too many goals, the goals are unclear, and/or there is no accountability for achieving the goals.

The 4 Disciplines of Execution

It is this phenomenon that Chris McChesney, Jim Huling, and Sean Covey sought to address in their book The 4 Disciplines of Execution. The 4 Disciplines of Execution (sometimes referred to as 4DX) are precise rules for translating strategy into action at all levels of an organisation. When the 4 Disciplines of Execution is applied effectively, they can produce extraordinary results by tapping the desire to win that exists in every individual and team.

However, there are two fundamental reasons that execution can be so difficult. The first is that it requires people to change their behaviour. Simply put, if you want to achieve goals you’ve never achieved before, you have to do things you’ve never done before. Changing human behaviour is rarely, if ever easy, but it’s even harder because of the second challenge: implementing these changes in an environment that’s already swirling with urgent priorities; i.e. the Whirlwind that I mentioned above. Together, these challenges can derail even the best leaders and managers from achieving their goals.

Law of Diminishing Returns

Do you remember the Law of Diminishing Returns? Basically, it argues that the more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish. So, if you have between 1 and 3 objectives it will be possible for you to achieve all of them with excellence. However, if you have between 4 and 8 you will probably achieve 2 of them. More than 8 and you may well achieve none. This is because your focus is diluted.

Somewhere along the way, most leaders forget this. Why? Because smart, ambitious leaders don’t want to do less, they want to do more, even when they know better. Isn’t it really difficult for you to say “No” to a good idea, much less a great one? And yet, there will always be more good ideas than you and your teams have the capacity to execute. That’s why your first challenge is “focusing on the wildly important.”

What are The 4 Disciplines of Execution?

Let’s now have a look at the 4 disciplines, which focus on:

  • Focus
  • Leverage
  • Engagement
  • Accountability

Discipline 1:  FOCUS

Focus on the Wildly Important may well require you to go against your basic wiring as a leader and focus on less so that your team can achieve more. When you implement Discipline 1 you start by identifying up to 3 extremely important goals, instead of trying to significantly improve everything all at once. McChesney, Huling and Covey call this a “Wildly Important Goal” (WIG) to make it clear to the team that this is the goal that matters most. Failure to achieve it will make every other accomplishment seem secondary—or possibly even inconsequential.

Discipline 2: Leverage

Act on Lead Measures is to focus on specific activities that drive results. Setting your WIGs is not enough. Every WIG must contain a clearly measurable result, as well as the date by which that result must be achieved. For example, a revenue-focused WIG might be: “Increase the percent of annual revenue from new products from 15% to 21% by December 31st.” This “from X to Y by When” format recognises where you are today, where you want to go, and the deadline for reaching that goal. As deceptively simple as this may seem, many leaders often struggle to translate their strategic concepts into a single “from X to Y by When” finish line. But once they’ve done it, both they and all the teams they lead, have gained tremendous clarity. There are two types of measures you need to be aware of; lag and lead.

Lag measures describe results — what you are trying to achieve (revenue, profit, market share.) Your WIG is a lag measure. You can’t “do” lag measures, and they arrive too late. Lag measures are tricky because of any lack of clarity about what a team member should be doing is a victory for the whirlwind.

Lead measures describe activities or sub-goals which can be acted upon. A good lead measure predicts success on the lag measure, and the team has direct influence over it – it’s not dependent on another team. The team should choose their own lead measures by selecting activities that will have the most impact on achieving the WIG.

Discipline 3: Engagement

Keep a Compelling Scoreboard is the best way to ensure that you and the team remain engaged. The team should know at all times if they are winning. You see, people play more seriously when they are keeping score. Without knowing the score, staff will be distracted by the Whirlwind. A visible scoreboard helps the team to work out where they are and how to move forward. To be effective, the scoreboard should be simple, visible, show both lead and lag measures (actions and results), and show at-a-glance if the team is winning. It can be motivating for the team to physically create their own board. Remember, to be a compelling scoreboard it has to be simple, visible, have the right lead and lag measures, and tell you immediately if you are winning or losing. It’s a radically different approach to tracking performance and it’s something the whirlwind does not provide well.

Discipline 4: Accountability

Create a Cadence of Accountability. The first three disciplines prepare for the game; the fourth discipline is the game itself  – it is actual execution. In an ideal world, each team responsible for a WIG should meet weekly to review progress and to hold team members personally accountable for their commitments. Let me be clear here, accountability is not the same thing as blame. Each commitment made must be a specific deliverable, not a commitment to “work on” something. Each commitment must aim to move the lead measure.

WIG – Wildly Important Goal

WIG sessions are fast-paced, typically 20–30 minutes and always have the same agenda:

  1. Account: Report on individual commitments made the previous session
  2. Review the scoreboard: Learn and problem-solve
  3. Plan: Make new commitments.

McChesney, Huling and Covey argue that 4DX is not a theory. It is a proven set of practices that can achieve positive results if you follow them.

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