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Bridging the gap between strategy and execution

This article appears in the issue May 2015, [Volume 24, Issue 5]


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In our never-ending quest for the enterprise of the future, we’ve explored an assortment of theories, frameworks, models and practices. But none of it really matters if you can’t execute. As the pace of change and growth in complexity continue to accelerate, execution becomes ever more important and increasingly difficult.

This month we’ll share with you an approach that’s gaining traction in many of the world’s largest, most execution-challenged institutions, including the U.S. government. It’s called 4DX, which stands for The Four Disciplines of Execution, based on a book of the same name by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling, all of FranklinCovey.

For many organizations, the biggest obstacle standing between strategy and execution is the continuing stream of distractions of the “day job,” what McChesney et al. refer to as the whirlwind. You know how it works. You participate in a strategic planning workshop or offsite retreat and return to the office totally energized, only to get sucked into the vortex of pop-up demands, crises, deadlines and the like. Goodbye strategy, hello whirlwind.

One reason for this is traditional, mainstream management has too many conflicting goals and too many process steps between the desired results and the people who are best suited not only to produce the results, but to define them in the first place. 4DX pushes that capacity out to the people in the know, closest to the customer, closest to the real work. Information is displayed in the open for all to see, which informs a dynamic plan that continually adjusts itself while never losing sight of the end goal.

Let’s take a look at each of the four disciplines and how to apply them. With an emphasis on knowledge, of course.

Discipline #1: Focus on the wildly important.

Here’s a simple rule few organizations follow: If you have more than 10 goals, the probability that you will achieve any one of them is near zero. In fact, the best chances of success come when you are focused on no more than two goals at a time. So make sure those one or two goals are absolutely the most important. In 4DX they’re called Wildly Important Goals (WIGs).

There are sub-goals of course, with lead and lag measures, all the way down the organization. Each is set and agreed upon by the people who can make it happen. WIGs are clear, measurable, time-constrained and realistic. For example: “getting a website up and running by the end of the month that will process up to 10,000 transactions per hour.”

Determine where you are now, where the finish line is and how long you have to get there. Then resist the urge (and your boss’ badgering) to start filling in project management templates with all kinds of generic tasks, arbitrary timelines and staff assignments drawn from a list of standardized labor categories. Instead, seek out minds having the right know-how and experience for achieving the WIG, and empower them to do it. Not only will this improve your chances of success, but it will also start shifting the culture to a place where everyone has a stake and a voice in determining the final outcome and how best to achieve it.

Discipline #2: Act on the lead measures.

Many traditional metrics are lagging indicators. They tell you what happened during the past month, quarter or year. It takes an entire reporting period to see if things have gotten better or worse. High-performance organizations, on the other hand, focus on leading indicators that are both predictive and influenceable.

Whenever football coaching legend Lou Holtz’s team was the underdog, he wouldn’t implore his players to “give it all you’ve got,” or “win one for the Gipper.” Instead, he would ask each player to stand up and specifically commit to what he would do during the game to help achieve a win. “I commit to causing two fumbles,” one player would say. On the board in the locker room, Holtz wrote the player’s name and the words “cause two fumbles” next to it. “I commit to one interception,” another player would say. Up it went on the board. When each person prepares, sets and commits to realistic goals, “the score,” as many great coaches say, “takes care of itself.”

The contribution of KM in this second discipline is clear. Knowledgeable people understand cause and effect. They know if you do something a certain way under a given set of conditions, you’ll get a predictable result. So be like Lou Holtz. Listen to your people and let them decide what they’ll do to help the team achieve the WIG, and how they’ll measure their progress.

Discipline #3: Keep a compelling scoreboard.

Even in organizations where lead measures are used, they are often complicated and buried deep inside spreadsheets, performance reviews and other obscure forms. Again, consider professional sports. Lead measures are posted in bold graphics on the Jumbotron for all to see. Free throw percentages in basketball. On-base percentages in baseball. Third down conversions and turnover ratios in football. All are highly visible, simple and drive the WIG.

A key attribute of the enterprise of the future is the use of anticipatory, as opposed to reactive, systems and methods. Knowledge-based enterprises use lead measures to look at what’s ahead, and anticipatory systems to see around corners. That can’t happen by focusing solely on lag measures obtained by looking in the rearview mirror.

Think about it. You can’t change the final score. But you can up your game by improving performance drivers such as your team’s response times or the usability of your client-facing systems. What’s on your Jumbotron? Better yet, where is your Jumbotron?

Discipline #4: Create a cadence of accountability.

Each week (or in some Agile/Scrum environments, two or three times a week), you and every person on your team meet to renew the commitments you’ve made to each other and review progress toward the goal. The measures for which you hold yourself accountable are things you can control, based on your knowledge and experience, not based on what some headquarters executive imagines you can do.

“But what about the whirlwind?” you might ask. No cadence there. Just a cacophony of phones ringing, message alerts and people knocking on your door at random intervals.

In 4DX, everybody knows the whirlwind will always be present. The discipline comes from knowing when to set it aside so you can focus on the WIGs, lead measures and proactive adjustments.

If you’re having trouble breaking free of the whirlwind’s grip, take a close look at how parts of it can be streamlined, automated or eliminated. If something’s constantly interfering with accomplishing your WIG, then it would be crazy not to correct it.

Action to take

As a KM’er, you are well positioned to take on the role of 4DX coach for your organization. Notice we said “coach” instead of “leader.” One of the keys to success is breaking the pattern of doing “what leadership wants.” Instead, work toward creating a mindset where each person decides and openly declares, “Here’s my commitment toward achieving the goal.”

Although in the early stages, 4DX continues to make its mark in commercial, non-profit and government enterprises. If it’s working in the vast bureaucracies of government, think of what it, along with an added dose of KM, can do for your organization.


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