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The Four Disciplines of Execution

By Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling

(Free Press, 326 pages, $32)

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MBA schools focus heavily on strategies. But businesses succeed as much, if not more, by execution. And execution is something less talked about and written about, even though it is vital.

The single notable book on the topic in the past decade, Execution, written in 2002 by heavy hitters Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, drew praise well beyond what was merited by the quality of the advice, possibly because any book on the topic meets a deep need from managers.

The Four Disciplines of Execution comes from less well-known writers – Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling of the FranklinCovey training organization – but is a far more useful book. The authors start by pointing out that execution can occur in two different ways: by stroke of the pen, or behavioural change.

Sometimes managers can simply decree what they want and it will happen, if they have the money or the authority. A major capital investment is ordered, for example, and it's done with a stroke of the pen.

The problem is that execution usually involves people, and often requires getting people to change their behaviour (a retailer wants its employees to greet every customer within 30 seconds of entering the store, for example, or a CEO wants the product development team to collaborate with the marketing group).

Worse yet, those behavioural changes and the quest to reach a goal must occur amid the frenzy of daily work life. "The real enemy of execution is your day job!" the authors write.

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"We call it the whirlwind. It's the massive amount of energy that's necessary just to keep your operation going on a day-to-day basis; and, ironically, it's also the thing that makes it so hard to execute anything new. The whirlwind robs from you the focus required to move your team forward," they note.

So how do you manage behavioural change and battle the whirlwind to execute your strategies? The authors, after testing ideas through 1,500 strategic implementations, have come up with a four-step process, each requiring a disciplined approach:

1. Focus on the wildly important

The more you try to do, the less you will accomplish, they warn. It simply magnifies the whirlwind. So focus on less to achieve more. Select one – or at most, two – extremely important goals. It is best to choose the goal through give-and-take with your team, so it's not a totally top-down or bottom-up choice. Ask yourself which single area of your team's performance you most want to improve to achieve the company's overall main goal. Or, which strengths of the team can best be capitalized on?

2. Act on the lead measures

Companies usually track after-the-fact metrics that tell them how successful they have been (revenue, profit, market share). Instead of focusing on those lagging measures that signal progress after it occurs, you need to find some lead measures that indicate which things your team needs to influence to reach the goal.

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In essence, these lead measures reflect the behavioural change you are seeking. Each measure must be predictive of achieving the goal and be something your team can influence. "Acting on the lead measures is one of the little-known secrets of execution," the authors notes. "Most leaders, even some of the most experienced, are so focused on lag measures that the discipline to focus on the lead measures feels counterintuitive."

3. Keep scorecards

People play differently – whether at soccer, tennis or work – when they're keeping score. To engage staff in the behavioural change, have them create a scorecard that shows how they are faring on influencing those lead measures. Make it highly visible, so they know how they are doing, and watch them try to improve their performance to get better numbers on the scoreboard. Don't create the scoreboard for them, however; it must be something they are comfortable with, and take ownership over.

4. Make everyone accountable

Establish a weekly accountability meeting, about 20 to 30 minutes long, that is separate from all your other meetings involved with the whirlwind. Quickly go around the table, starting with yourself, and have everyone report on the commitments they made last week to move the lead measures forward; what they learned from their success or failure; and what new commitments they are making this week.

Never skip the meeting, because it is the cadence of continual checking that is important. Do not mix this accountability session into regular meetings. And don't let anyone off the hook, including yourself: Last week's unmet commitments become part of this week's commitments.

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The authors report widespread success with this four-step formula, and share examples along with specifics for implementation. It's an interesting approach, worth considering given the importance of implementation and the way the whirlwind routinely pushes us off course.


Books about lean operations offer a specific approach to execution, and the second edition of Running Lean (O'Reilly, 207 pages, $26.99) by entrepreneur Ash Maurya shows how to make your startup more effective.

The IKEA Edge (McGraw-Hill, 191 pages, $28.95) by Anders Dahlvig, former chief executive officer of the furniture retailer, explains how the company has executed on its mission of building global growth and social good.

Out-Executing the Competition (John Wiley, 222 pages, $33.95) by Irv Rothman, president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard Financial Services, presents ideas about building a financial services company even in a lacklustre economy.

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