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April 12, 2014

The 4 Disciplines of Execution

Book Review-The Four Disciplines of Execution

Running your own company is sometimes challenging – in truth most entrepreneurs would say that it’s almost always challenging. In some ways I feel like the challenges of a small business are very different than the challenges of large organizations. Sometimes when I’m reading management books it’s hard to translate the “big company” view into one that’s more appropriate for a small organization. That struggle surfaced in my reading of The Four Disciplines of Execution – but in a slightly different way than one might expect.

Strategy or Execution

Most large organizations have some sort of a strategy planning cadence. They go for off-site meetings and come up with the plan for the organization over the next few years. Sometimes the focus is on the next year with only limited focus beyond that point. The idea is that the grand direction for the organization will be set by the best minds in the organization over the course of a few days.

Some of those strategy planning retreats – as they’re often called – are very effective. They identify the clear rallying cry that the organization should follow to reach its mission. However, more often than not, the meetings end and there are still unanswered questions, unfinished conversations, and at least a little bit of fog over the goal. However, there’s a need to wrap up the strategy setting process, and so a bow is put on the package – much like lipstick on a pig – and the strategy is proclaimed done.

But is the process of creating the strategy the hard part – or is that the easy part? Is it harder to put the strategy together or to execute it? In most cases it’s much harder to execute a strategy than it is to set it. There are several reasons for this. Not the least of which is that there are different kinds of strategies. There are the ‘stroke of the pen’ strategies that are implemented by a signature on a contract. These are easy strategies. The other type of strategy requires behavioral change. The behavioral change strategies require people to understand what is expected of them and why they’re making the change, and difficulty communicating the what and why becomes difficult to surmount.

Clear Communication

4DX quotes a Bain and Company report that says “About 65 percent of initiatives required significant behavioral change on the part of front-line employees—something that managers often fail to consider or plan for in advance.” They go on to quote other research that says that only 51 percent of employees could say they were passionate about the team’s goal. That’s pretty damning evidence that employees don’t understand what the strategy means for them.

Inside of these two statistics are at least two problems that I’ve seen in countless organizations. First, most strategies are locked up behind closed doors and never spoken of. Second, most strategies aren’t translated into tactics.

Behind Closed Doors

In my work as a consultant I get the opportunity to work with a wide variety of organizations and I’m always meeting new organizations. It never ceases to amaze me how some of the simplest and most direct questions are met with such surprise. I routinely ask clients what their strategic goals are and how their project with me (typically SharePoint) aligns to one of their strategic goals.

The surprising part is that most of the clients that I’m working with cannot even tell me what the organization’s strategic goals are. I can’t imagine how anyone can operate in an environment where they don’t know what the end goal is. Imagine getting in your car and driving without knowing where you wanted to end up. You could just as easily be moving away from your goal as moving toward it.

Sometimes I’m told that they can’t tell me what the strategic goals are because that’s confidential or proprietary information. (Notwithstanding the fact that I have a non-disclosure clause in my standard contracts.) It seems that the strategy is so super-secret that it has to be guarded even from the people who are supposed to be executing it. It may seem crazy when stated like that, but many organizations aren’t in the habit of shouting their strategies from the rooftops for all the employees to hear.

Translation Needed

In some organizations the problem isn’t that the strategy is unknown. The strategy is known – but how the strategy will be executed is missing. The “What” is clear, but the “How” isn’t. If your organization has a strategy of delivering the best quality widgets to the health care industry that tells the person who is the receptionist in the front office almost nothing about how she can contribute to the strategic goal.

What’s needed is a way to translate the big strategy into a set of actions that can be taken by every employee in the organization. That means translating the corporate strategy into strategies for each of the divisions and then tactics for each of the divisions to achieve those strategies. Those tactics get translated into goals and ultimately the goals get translated into actions and the actions get translated into tasks for individual employees.

In most organizations that I’ve worked with the process breaks down somewhere. There’s not a clear link between what the individual contributors do and the strategy, because they don’t feel like their role can impact the corporate strategy, and the tactics, goals, and activities, between their tasks and the strategy aren’t aligned. Or somewhere along the way, there’s not a transition from the broad-brush visionary language into specific language about what has to be accomplished and when.


By the time that we’re talking about goals we should be talking about what specifically needs to be done and when. 4DX uses a simple “from X to Y by When” formula in the way that it talks about goals. This is a great simplification of SMART goals which I first wrote about in 2005 in an article for TechRepublic, “Use SMART goals to launch management by objectives plan.” SMART is an acronym for:

  • Specific – The goal must be more than just superlatives like “good”, “better”, or “best” – the goal should have a specific value associated with it.
  • Measurable – The goal should be measurable given the tools you have. Saying that you want to improve customer satisfaction scores by 10% is specific but unless you have an instrument to measure satisfaction – like a survey – it wouldn’t be measurable.
  • Achievable – Setting a goal that can’t be achieved is pointless. If you’re currently penetrating 10% of the market with your service, how likely is it that you can penetrate 90% in the next six months?
  • Realistic – Being realistic means that you don’t assume everything will go right. If you need to close all four big deals to achieve the goal but your sales closure rate is about 50% it’s not a realistic goal.
  • Time-based – Everything has to be done sometime. Time-based means that there’s a specific time for the goal to be met. In the context of strategic planning, it’s often the interval that the planning is done on – like a year.

While I like the SMART acronym better than “from X to Y by when” that works too – coupled with the guidance that the goals must be set so that employees feel like it’s possible to “win the game.” Setting unrealistic or unachievable goals won’t make employees feel like the game is winnable.

Once you have the specific goals, it’s time to hold employees accountable for delivering on those goals – and unfortunately this is another area where organizations struggle.

The Power of Accountability

In the surveys that 4DX referenced, 81% of employees said that they weren’t held accountable for regular progress on the organization’s goals. 87% had no clear idea what they should be doing to achieve the goal. That’s as frightening as the problems with communication. Even if your organization was great at communicating what needs to be done, there’s no one minding the till. No one is being held accountable for driving the strategy forward. This isn’t surprising given how conflict avoidant – or dare I say passive-aggressive – most organizations have become. In the name of being friendly, we’ve stopped holding people accountable.

Holding people accountable is uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable for the person who’s being held accountable because inevitably they’re going to miss a commitment and have to admit that they failed. It’s uncomfortable for the manager because it leaves that negative emotion of the employee in the air and can create some level of guilt or embarrassment that feels awkward in a professional meeting. However, failing to hold people accountable leads to a continuous decline in performance.

When I’ve spoken of personal mastery (The Fifth Discipline), I’ve mentioned that personal mastery is doing something you don’t want to do because it’s the right thing to do – in spite of the momentary pain associated with doing it. The pain of holding someone accountable may be met with one of these excuses:

  • It will fix itself – We all have a limited amount of energy that we can spend on things. Our time, attention, and emotional presence is expensive and sometimes you believe – or probably more accurately hope – that problems, like a lack of follow through on a commitment, will just fix itself. It’s rarely the case that this is correct, but we keep hoping that it will be one day.
  • It doesn’t matter anyway – Sometimes we believe that even if we try to hold someone accountable it won’t change anything. It won’t change their behavior and it won’t change the outcome.
  • I don’t want the fight – Sometimes the fight is something that we don’t have the emotional energy for, other times we don’t feel like we’ve got the relationship necessary to support a healthy resolution. In either case, we just don’t want the fight that we perceive will be necessary to hold someone accountable.
  • I wasn’t clear enough – Some leaders question whether the commitment that was made was clear enough. Either because the person who was being asked to make the commitment didn’t understand – or because the leader didn’t understand what the team member was saying. So next time the leader will attempt to be clearer.
  • They know how I feel – In another attempt to hope the problem away, we don’t hold others accountable because we believe that they know how we feel and that they understand the problem of not meeting their commitments.

Clearly, there are other possible issues and excuses but the fact of the matter is that in many cases we don’t hold people accountable to the most important commitments because it’s hard. Sometimes, however, the problem is more difficult. That is, the problem is based on the fact that the commitment wasn’t something that they could control – or even influence.

Pushing or Pulling (Lead and Lag Indicators)

When we make a commitment we’re often asked to make a commitment for a result. We’re asked to improve sales by a certain amount, or reduce costs by some other amount. These requests are partially in our control – but also they’re a measure of the results. Measuring results is great – and ultimately what we have to do. However, results measurement happens after all of the work to drive the results are done. You can measure whether someone has met a sales quota, but not until the end of the period. As a result, it’s too late to do anything about it. That’s why results measurement is a lag measurement. The changes always lag from the behaviors that lead to the results. Most of the results we seek are lag measurements and that’s OK – until you try to influence the results.

For instance, if you have a goal of losing weight you can step on the scale and see whether you have achieved your goal. Even if you measure your weight daily you’re still measuring the result of the day’s activity. Measuring your weight is a lag measurement. However, if you were to measure the number of calories you took in – through eating and drinking – and those you expended through exercise, you’d have a set of leading indicators. These indicators would allow you to predict whether you were going to lose weight or gain it. That’s the power of a lead indicator. It’s something that you can control that predicts the outcome that you want.

While lag indicators are generally pretty easy to figure out, leading indicators are generally harder to pick – and harder to track. However, in any program, when you’re trying to execute a change, you need lead indicators to help you know how you’re doing. However, sometimes finding leading indicators for the leading indicators you pick can be both necessary and problematic.

If We Knew What We Should Be Doing

For more than five years I’ve been selling the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users. The guidance there on how to do the most common tasks in SharePoint has been highly regarded by many people over the years. I’ve collected many great quotes about the Guide. And I’ve spent a great deal of time and money over the last five years trying to improve sales. I’ve been primarily focused on generating a larger number of leads – the number of people who are inquiring about the product. However, in the end analysis, all my work on the Shepherd’s Guide marketing in the last five years as not appreciably changed the number of leads that I get in a year. Let me say that differently – none of the actions that I’ve taken have mattered.

This may seem like a fatalist view – that I’m not having an appreciable impact – however, that’s not the intent. The intent is to say that I don’t know how to change the number of leads that I get for the Shepherd’s Guide. It doesn’t appear to matter how often I speak at conferences or users groups. Nor does it appear that it matters whether I support users groups across the US. Not that I’m planning on changing these behaviors, but the point is that they don’t appear to be making a difference in the number of inbound leads that I’m seeing.

The idea of a good lead measure is that it predicts desired outcomes – like sales – and that it can be influenced. Certainly I can accept that the number of leads I get will lead to sales – there’s a reason they’re called leads in the first place. However, based on the evidence I have, it’s hard to believe that I can influence the number of leads that I get.

Four Disciplines

The principles – disciplines – in The Four Disciplines of Execution are relatively straight forward and, in fact, they’re not that different from the article I wrote titled Create a Path to Reach Your Strategy nine years ago. However, as I’ve found over the years, sometimes you have to repeat the same message to have it heard. In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande said, “Discipline is hard—harder than trustworthiness and skill and perhaps even selflessness.” This is the essence of the 4DX method – instilling the discipline to get things done. However, we should go through the disciplines in order – to put first things first, as Stephen Covey (in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) would say.

Discipline 1: Focus on the Wildly Important

If you could do just one thing, what would it be? That’s at the heart of finding your wildly important goal. If you could only do one thing to improve your organization, what would it be? The truth is that we believe, culturally, that we can multitask. However, the evidence is strikingly in contrast to this notion. 4DX quotes professor Clifford Nass of Stanford University who says “Habitual multitaskers may be sacrificing performance on the primary task. They are suckers for irrelevancy.” A more damning quote comes from Jordan Grafman of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in the USA. “Improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively… the more you multitask… the less deliberative you become; the less you’re able to think and reason out a problem.”

If you’re looking for a bright side, Clifford Nass admits, “The neural circuits devoted to scanning, skimming, and multitasking are expanding and strengthening,” but he cautions, “while those used for reading and thinking deeply, with sustained concentration, are weakening or eroding.” So even if we, as a human race, could become better at multitasking, it would have severe consequences in our ability to focus. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would be concerned since he demonstrates in his research and documents in Finding Flow, that the most productive time people have is when they’re in “flow” and that requires uninterrupted focus on a task. So what happens when we’re constantly interrupted – and we have no chance to get into flow? (This fundamental idea isn’t new. You can also find coverage in Peopleware.)

The more that we can focus our energies on a single task – including finding a single (or a few) wildly important goals, the more aligned we are with how people think. With too many things going on, the interruptions become inevitable. So the first discipline is the discipline of focus.

4DX encourages you to focus on one Wildly Important Goal (WIG) and try to make just that happen.

Discipline 2: Act on Lead Measures

Knowing what you want to accomplish and knowing how you’re going to accomplish it are two vastly different things. You may know that your goal is to increase the number of leads for a product, but influencing that number may be difficult – if not impossible – to do. That’s where the power of finding the right lead measure comes in. Leads coming in are, in and of themselves, a lead measure for sales (assuming a stable conversion rate). A lead measure for generating inbound leads may be the number of quick reference cards I give out. However, it can equally be that the number of cards that I hand out has nothing to do with the number of leads I get.

Picking the right lead measure is arguably the hardest part of the 4DX system. Making progress on the right lead measures means that you’ll make progress on your wildly important goal. But how do you ensure that you’ll make progress on the lead measure? It starts with visibility.

Discipline 3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

4DX speaks frequently that people play differently when they’re keeping score. There’s a different level of intensity to the play. They’re more serious and less jovial. Malcom Gladwell describes the impact of practice in Outliers, but is careful to point out that it’s an intentional practice. It’s possible to have intentional practice without keeping score – as might have happened with the Beatles (their take-home pay each night didn’t materially change based on their performance) or Bill Gates (who was solving non-monetary problems with computers in high school before he started Microsoft.) However, for most people – who aren’t outliers – keeping score makes a serious difference.

In order to keep score, you need a scoreboard – and not the kind of statistical spreadsheet that a baseball statistician keeps. You need the kind of simplistic view of the measure that is glanceable. Peter Morville, in Ambient Findability, speaks about how to create environments where the results are more likely. That is, everyone should know at a glance what the key measures are. Scorecards have become the rage in some business circles. In my world, I’ve realized that there are only two issues with business intelligence initiatives including the development of balanced scorecards. First, the data is missing or bad. Every organization struggles with bad data at some level. Second, businesses have no idea what to put on the scorecard. (See the problem above about choosing a lead measure.)

4DX discusses the need to automate scorecards and to distribute them so that they’re visible. In some cases, that means capturing data that you’re not used to capturing – such as the percentage of normal at which a machine is operating – and sometimes is means automating the display of the scorecards. In one of my manufacturing clients, they’ve installed large TVs with low powered PCs that constantly display a web page that changes with a set of statistics about how the machine is doing, how the operator is doing, how the shift is doing, and how the plant is doing. The rotation of these statistics means that there’s some motion to attract the eye and the relatively low number of indicators means that the screens are glanceable. This is a perfect execution of creating and automating a scorecard.

If you’re trying to build your score card, start with your lead measure and then make that measure instantly understandable – perhaps using some of the techniques from Infographics. However, just making a measure visible won’t be enough. You’ll also have to hold team members accountable as well.

Discipline 4: Create a Cadence of Accountability

Agile techniques, most notably Scrum, have a daily standup meeting. (See Agile Software Development) Why a standup meeting? The answer is simple. People don’t tend to be long-winded when they have to stand up for the full meeting, so it keeps it short. What does a standup meeting do? It reports on progress, it makes a commitment for tomorrow, and it identifies issues. This is strikingly similar to the 4DX WIG meeting. Though WIG meetings are typically held once a week and daily standup meetings are – well, daily – they are structurally similar. In 4DX language, the words are Account (report on progress), Review the scoreboard (make a new commitment), and Plan (remove obstacles.)

The beauty of the model is that this meeting is focused not on doing the work but planning the work. No issues (of any significance) are resolved here. Any issues are deferred to outside of the meeting. This is intentional, as it helps to keep the focus on the accountability of the meeting – and keeps it short. Having worked on numerous software development teams that use agile development, the impact of an accountability meeting can be stunning. The peer pressure to do what you commit to reduces problems and the frequent reviews mean that, when there are problems, they’re discovered early on. The teamwork of the group – the understanding that we’re all going to succeed or fail together makes the collaboration and support of those struggling very quick and generally sufficient. People won’t languish for days on a problem that someone else on the team knows how to solve.

It Didn’t Work

Sometimes even with the right execution plan you won’t see results. Sometimes the results won’t come because of external factors – like a market change – sometimes those factors are internal – like you aren’t really executing as well as you think – and sometimes you just bet on the wrong horse. We talked about lead indicators needing to be predictive and able to be influenced. If I pick the number of quick reference guides I give out as my lead measure – because I can influence it – but that doesn’t generate more leads, then it’s a bad measure, and a goal (of selling more licenses) that won’t be met. It’s not a matter of strategy or execution – it’s a matter of both strategy and execution. If you get either of them wrong – and all of us will at times – you won’t see the results that you want.

Getting To It

The Four Disciplines of Execution may not lay out some fancy 25 step process for execution or some complicated techniques for getting the results you want. It’s just four understandable steps – on purpose. The authors knew that you have to make things make sense and they have to be simple if they’re going to get executed. So pick up The Four Disciplines of Execution and get started on executing your strategy.

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