I met Doug Puzey at the beginning of this year.
Doug is area director of the Southeast for FranklinCovey. And it was during a chat we were having that he mentioned — a couple of times actually — “the four disciplines of execution.”
Execution — the ability to get the right things done right — is a key area of study (and practice) for me. The reason isn’t glamorous. I struggle with execution.
Part of the reason is that I am a strategist by nature and training. For much of my 21-year career, I’ve helped leaders and their teams see the bigger picture, but I’ve typically not been directly involved in the execution of their strategy.
Another reason I struggle with execution is that I chronically overcommit to people and projects. But more on that later in this post.
Why CEOs Fail
In a classic 1999 Fortune Magazine article, Ram Charan and Geoffrey Colvin explored why so many CEOs fail.
It’s not because of poor strategy. Or lack of vision or charisma. By far, the primary reason CEOs fail is bad execution. They don’t make decisions, get things done and deliver on commitments.
It’s that simple. And hard.
For leaders, especially business leaders, it’s execute or get executed.
The Four Disciplines of Execution
Doug sent me a copy of FranklinCovey’s book by Chris McChesney titled, The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals.
It’s a superb book. So superb, I’ve introduced it to my colleagues and we’re working through how to implement and practice it in our organization.
It’s built on a simple, but powerful narrative — we live and work in a whirlwind of people, projects and places. And this whirlwind controls most our time, attention and energy.
The reason we can’t see our goals through to completion is not that we’re incapable or incompetent. The whirlwind sabotages our best intentions. A child gets sick. An important client demands time with us today. The CEO needs a report ASAP.
Here are the four disciplines of execution:
- Discipline 1: Choose a “wildly important goal (WIG)” that’s worthy and winnable.
- Discipline 2: Select actionable, influenceable lead measures that achieve the WIG.
- Discipline 3: Use a simple scorecard that shows, at a glance, whether you’re winning or losing.
- Discipline 4: Ensure a cadence of accountability.
As McChesney said in a Forbes article about the book, Disciplines 1-3 set up a winnable game. Discipline 4 is where the actual game is played.
What I like about the 4DX model is that it forces you to focus. And therein lies the root of my execution problem.
Robert Frost Got it Right
Even if you don’t read or care much for poetry, you are most likely familiar with Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken.
It’s about “two roads” diverging in a “yellow wood”. At the end of the poem, the narrator claims to have taken the “road less traveled by” and says, with a sigh, it “has made all the difference”.
It’s this individualistic idea of choosing one’s own path—one not taken by the masses—that has led the masses to misquote and misunderstand this poem.
In the second half of the poem, the narrator claims both paths looked, “really about the same,” even though he changes his story years later as he looks back, haunted by the “what if” of the road not taken.
The poem is about the haunting of roads not taken in our lives.
What if I had married her?
What if I had not taken that job?
What if I had started writing 20 years ago?
What if I had started that business?
With every major choice in our life comes a loss. To choose one thing is to give up another.
M. Scott Peck Got it Wrong
M. Scott Peck rose to prominence with his book, The Road Less Traveled. I can’t help but wonder if the book’s success contributed to the misuse of Frost’s poem.
It’s a personal development book, in the American success myth tradition, that details the attributes that create a fulfilled life.
Yet Peck, admittedly, never practiced what he preached. And sacrificed his family, reputation and health to his hedonistic impulses.
I’ve Gotten It Wrong Too
Why have I struggled with execution? Why have I consistently overcommitted to people and projects, in spite of knowing the importance of focus?
The story I’ve been telling myself is that I want to be an A-player. I don’t want to limit myself. I want to rise to new challenges and opportunities as they present themselves.
But that’s not the complete story.
The simple, and not-so-simple, reason I overcommit is fear.
I don’t want to turn down work, because I never want to find that my services are no longer in demand.
But success demands execution.
Execution requires focus.
Focus means I must make tough decisions.
And making decisions means letting go of numerous opportunities I currently have.
Which means I will have to live the rest of my life haunted by the roads not taken in my life.
We live in a world that will pay you handsomely for answers — for recommendations of roads to take. But the roads not taken — the what ifs — will forever linger.
Are you working for something (or someone) worth the sacrifice?
I think I finally am.Image at the beginning of this post by Michael Dales on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license “Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic.”