The 4 Disciplines of Execution - Critical summary review - Chris McChesney
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The 4 Disciplines of Execution - critical summary review

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Management & Leadership

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: 

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ISBN: 1451627068

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Critical summary review

When it comes to producing results, there are two – and only two – things a leader can influence: the company’s strategy and the company’s ability to execute that strategy. Most leaders have no problem coming up with a strategy. After all, that’s what almost every university program and MBA course is dedicated to. However, execution rarely comes naturally to both leaders and companies. Why? Well, mostly because it’s an area nobody bothers educating in. “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” by corporate consultants Sean Covey, Chris McChesney, and Jim Huling aims to mend this. It presents a set of disciplines that should help you and your company translate your strategies into extraordinary results. So, get ready to make the leap from planning to doing and prepare to discover a proven 4-step formula for executing your most important tactical priorities!

The real problem with execution

There are billions of different strategies, but only two ways to execute those strategies. The first one requires mainly a stroke of the pen; the second requires behavioral change. Stroke-of-the-pen strategies are those a leader can execute just by ordering or authorizing them to be done. We’re talking about capital investments here, about strategic acquisitions or expansions of staff. In all of those cases, all a leader has to do is sign a paper and then someone somewhere will inevitably take care of the rest. Behavioral-change strategies are much trickier. You can’t just order them to happen, because their execution requires getting a lot of people to do something different. For example, it’s impossible to just order higher quality, operational consistency or improved customer experience. Those kinds of changes require – well, change.

According to the global management-consulting firm Bain & Company, “About 65% of company initiatives require significant behavioral change on the part of front-line employees – something that managers often fail to consider or plan for in advance.” And therein lies the catch! You see, most leaders assume it’s the people who are the problem, because they are the ones not doing what they are asked to. However, to paraphrase the foremost American expert on quality, the world-renowned statistician W. Edwards Deming, when the majority of the employees behave a certain way the majority of the time, they cannot be the problem – the problem must be inherent in the system. 

With this in mind, Covey, McChesney and Huling spent a few years examining hundreds of businesses and government agencies. Their goal was to find the root cause of weak execution. To their surprise, it wasn’t lack of strategic clarity, lack of commitment or lack of accountability. They were all just corollaries of something else – the day job itself! Simply put, people had too many urgent matters to deal with to be able to change in any way or form! The “massive amount of energy that’s necessary just to keep your operation going on a day-to-day basis” is what the authors call the whirlwind. Ironically, the whirlwind is also the reason that makes it so hard to execute anything new. But fortunately, there are ways to do it. Mastering the four disciplines of execution – or 4DX for short – is the best one. Let’s look at them in turn!

Discipline No. 1: Focus on the wildly important

When it comes to setting goals, the law of diminishing returns is as real as gravity. Meaning, as a rule, the more goals you set in your strategy the fewer of them will be met. What’s worse, the ones that will be executed will be executed poorly – and they will also probably be the least important of the bunch. Why? Because that’s how human beings function. We easily lose focus. We are unable to multitask. We are “genetically hardwired to do one thing at a time with excellence.” Hence, the first discipline of execution is “to focus your finest effort on the one or two goals that will make all the difference, instead of giving mediocre effort to dozens of goals.” We’ll call that one goal that makes all the difference is “the wildly important goal,” or WIG for short.

To identify your WIG, rather than asking yourself “What’s most important?” ask yourself the following question: “If every other area of our operation remained at its current level of performance, what is the one area where change would have the greatest impact?” Whatever the answer, your WIG will either emerge from the whirlwind or outside it. In other words, your WIG may be either fixing an existing activity that is underperforming or is badly broken, or launching a new product or service, either to seize a huge opportunity or to counter a competitive threat. Either way, your objective with your WIG won’t be just to achieve it, but to naturalize it, that is to say, to make it part of the whirlwind of tomorrow. 

There are four rules to follow when it comes to applying the first discipline of execution organizationally. First of all, you must make sure that no team focuses on more than two WIGs at the same time. Otherwise, they will lose focus. Secondly, you must reorganize your company efforts in a way that all activities from all teams must work toward accomplishing the WIG. Third, you must give middle-level managers the freedom to organize their teams – senior leaders may be allowed to veto activities, but never dictate their execution. Last but not least, you must formulate the WIG in such a way that its implementation can be measured. In other words, all WIGs must have a finish line in the form of “from X to Y by when.” Here’s a good example: “Increase percent of annual revenue from new products from 15% to 21% by December 31st.”

Discipline No. 2: Act on the lead measures

The second discipline of execution is “to apply disproportionate energy to the activities that drive your lead measures.” In other words, whereas the first discipline of execution takes the WIG and breaks it down into “a set of specific, measurable targets” until every team has a WIG that it can own, the second discipline defines “the leveraged actions that will enable the team to achieve that goal.” A company should apply two kinds of measures to evaluate the progress of a WIG: “lag measures” and “lead measures.” What’s the difference? Well, while a “lag measure” reports whether a team has achieved some part of the WIG, a “lead measure” tells leaders if their teams are likely to achieve the goal they are tasked with. But let’s explain that better.

Say, you are the owner of a restaurant and your WIG is to improve customer satisfaction. To see if you have achieved that, you can easily order a survey at the end of the implementation period which will show how well you and your company did in achieving the expected change. However, this is a “lag measure,” since by the time you receive the results of it, you will have already completed all the activities that can alter them. That’s where “lead measures” come in. Rather than being about yearly surveys or quarterly reports, they are about “high-leverage actions” one can take to get the lag measures to move when they can move. In our case, a good “lead measure” would be regular weekly surveys that will allow your people to adapt on their way to completing the WIG.

Unlike lag measures, lead measures are both predictive and influenceable. Meaning, if a lead measure changes there’s a good chance the lag measure will also change. Moreover, unlike lag measures, lead measures can be directly influenced by the team in charge. For example, whereas nobody can control how often their car breaks down on the road (a lag measure), everybody can control how often their car receives routine maintenance (a lead measure). The good news is that “the more you act on the lead measure, the more likely you are to avoid that roadside breakdown.” Hence, committing to act on the lead measures is the second discipline of execution. After all, the best way to write a 300-page novel isn’t to write 300 pages in a single day, but to write 1 page every day!

Discipline No. 3: Keep a compelling scoreboard

Most leaders feel that scoreboards are just for them. After all, why would you bother low-level employees with graphs and slides and complex spreadsheets? In reality, however, the scoreboard should always be for the whole team, because people are more engaged and play with a different intensity when they are keeping score. That’s why the third discipline of execution can be called “the discipline of engagement.” It encompasses making sure that “everyone knows the score at all times, so that they can tell whether or not they are winning.” And the best way to do that is by keeping “a compelling scoreboard.” What does that entail, you wonder? Well, a compelling scoreboard meets the following four criteria:

  1. It is simple. The main difference between a leader’s scoreboard and a compelling scoreboard is that the latter one can be understood by all. Think of a football game. Whereas coaches need to track and differentiate between hundreds of numbers and statistical points, the majority of people in front of their TVs are interested in only six distinct pieces of data: score, time, quarter, down and distance, and time-outs. That’s a compelling scoreboard.
  2. It is visible. There’s a reason why the scoreboard at a football game is huge, and it is the same reason why the score is always visible if you’re watching the game on TV – so that everyone, at any time, can tell at a glance who’s winning. So, put the scoreboard where everyone can see it. Bear in mind that visibility is great because it also drives accountability. When everyone knows how well you’re doing, you’ll try more to do a bit better.
  3. It shows both lead and lag measures. Compelling scoreboards must tell everyone involved what they are currently trying to achieve (the lead) and what is their final objective (the lag). Without seeing both lead and lag measures, a team may quickly lose interest. The opposite is also true: once a team notices that the lag measure is moving because of something they have done, they will feel happier and more engaged.
  4. It tells, at a glance, if the team is winning. If a team can’t quickly determine whether they are winning or losing by looking at a scoreboard, then that scoreboard isn’t compelling – it’s just a bunch of incomprehensible data. It’s for reasons such as this that there exist things such as graphs or conditional formatting: they make scoreboards come to life. If your team can’t tell within 5 seconds whether they are winning, then you must change the way you present them the data!

Discipline No. 4: Create a cadence of accountability

The fourth and final discipline is where execution actually happens. In other words, whereas the first three disciplines set up the game, the fourth one is the one that gets the game going. As difficult as it might be, finding a way to refocus your team on the wildly important and telling them what they are expected to do in order to win at the end may amount to nothing if you don’t show everyone why and how they should commit long-term to the WIG. That’s what the fourth discipline of execution is all about. It is, in short, the discipline of responsibility. It entails “creating a cadence of accountability, a frequently recurring cycle of accounting for past performance and planning to move the score forward.”

In the words of the authors, “Disciplines 1, 2, and 3 bring focus, clarity, and engagement, which are powerful and necessary elements for your success. But with Discipline 4, you and your team ensure that the goal is achieved, no matter what is happening around you.” Indeed, staying focused in spite of the whirlwind is a very difficult job. That’s why traditional accountability – which is top-down and periodical – rarely works. In a 4DX organization, however, accountability works differently. First of all, it is shared; secondly, it is frequent. In other words, in a 4DX organization, team members make personal commitments to deliver results, but rather than making them just to their boss or their team leader, they make them to the members of their team as well. Moreover, they report on their progress every week in a “short, intense, team meeting” called the WIG session.

This weekly WIG session can make all the difference between a successful and a failed execution. Just think of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, in which 8 climbers died in a blizzard. Though much of the circumstances around the accident are still unknown, all of the survivors seem to agree on one point – namely, that it was lack of accountability and discipline that triggered off the events which led to the tragedy. When team members report to other team members, it is easier to follow through in a disciplined way. Disappointing a boss is uncomfortable, but bearable; however, nobody wants to disappoint a colleague. To organize a successful WIG session, follow this three-part agenda: account-review-plan. In other words, first make everybody report on their commitments, then review the scoreboard together and finally, after learning from the wins and losses, clear the path for new commitments.

Final notes

In his praise for “The 4 Disciplines of Execution,” Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen described it as a book which explains not only the “what” of strategic organizational change, but also “how” effective execution is achieved. “This is a book that every leader should read!” he concluded. That may be so because the book is all-around great in our opinion as well, but still, be aware that it sometimes feels as if book-length P.R. for FranklinCovey Co., the consulting company the three authors work for. If you can ignore that, then there’s a wealth of useful information you can extract from here!

12min tip

Focus, clarity, engagement and accountability – those are the four pillars of execution because they are also the four pillars of behavioral change. Implement them – and you’ll be able to implement everything else!

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Who wrote the book?

Christopher N. McChesney is a best-selling author, leadershi... (Read more)

Coauthor of the #1 National Bestseller, The 4 Disciplines of Execution™ now t... (Read more)

Sean Covey is an American business executive, author, and speaker. He is President of FranklinCove... (Read more)

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