The Art of Execution: How Can We Make Things Happen?

“Execution is one of the great ’unaddressed’ issues in the business world today.” – Bossidy and Charan

MOST often the difference today between a company and its competitors in terms of success is the ability to execute strategies and plans, and to do it consistently.

Execution is one of the great “unaddressed” issues in the business world today. Bossidy and Charan, in their landmark book, “Execution – The Discipline of Getting Things Done, –  assert that “Its absence is the single biggest obstacle to success and the cause of most of the disappointments that are mistakenly attributed to other causes.”

In my consulting with organizations, I often hear leaders venting their frustration about their inability to get things done. The mindset has not changed. One of the issues is that they place too much emphasis on high-level strategy, on intellectualizing and philosophizing, and not enough emphasis on implementation. People may agree on a project or initiative, but very often nothing would come out of it.

How to make it happen?

Execution is the culture of getting strategies and plans implemented consistently to create value for stakeholders, staff and the customers. So how do we go about getting it done?

Execution is a discipline, and integral to strategy

Execution is a systematic process of rigorously discussing the hows and whats; the process of questioning; and then the discipline of tenaciously following through and ensuring accountability. It involves asking the 5 W and 1 H questions.

  • Why should we do it?
  • What needs to be done to achieve the outcomes we want?
  • Who is going to get it done?
  • When is it going to be done?
  • Where should we do it?
  • How should it be done?

It is a systematic way of exposing reality and acting on it. Jack Welch forced realism into all of GE’s management processes, making it a model of an execution culture.

The leader creates the culture for the team to face realities squarely.

We need accountability for results – discussed openly and agreed to by those responsible – to get things done and then to reward the best performers. We need follow-through to ensure the plans are on track.

The Business Leader Sets The Tone

An organization can execute only if the leader’s heart and soul are immersed in the company. Leading is more than just thinking strategically, attempting to inspire your people with visions, while managers do the work. The leader has to be engaged personally and deeply in the business. Execution is the major job of the business leader.

Distinguish Between Micromanaging and Execution

Micromanaging diminishes people’s self-confidence, discourages their initiative and stifles their ability to think for themselves. Leading for execution is active involvement. Leaders use their knowledge and wisdom to constantly probe. They bring weaknesses to light and rally their people to correct them.

Don’t Tell But Ask

Leaders who execute often do not tell people what to do but ask questions so their followers can figure out what they need to do. In this way, they coach them, passing on their experiences as a leader and educating them to think in ways that were never tried before. Far from stifling them, they help people expand their capabilities.

Walk, Not Just Talk

Leaders who execute are willing to soil their hands and work the ground instead of just shouting from the sideline. They have intimate knowledge of their business. They will do whatever it takes to clear the road blocks for their people.

Creating Dialogue

Dialogue is the core of the execution culture. We need robust dialogue to bring the realities of the business to the surface. It must occur at all levels – CEOs communicating personally with their senior and middle managers and staff. E-mails are not good enough. Managers engage in conversations, both formally and informally, with their supervisors and staff. Employees are given opportunities to exchange values, information and ideas with one another.

How people talk to each other absolutely determines how well the organization will function. The key issues in dialogue cover the following:

  • Are people candid, open and sincere?
  • Are people raising the right questions?
  • Are people debating the issues and finding realistic solutions?

Making Structures And Processes Work For Your Accountability

Leaders create the right structures to make managers accountable so that execution can take place. Processes are made efficient. People who spend too much time briefing and debriefing stifle performance. They can keep improving processes by:

  • Identifying process bug
  • Cutting waste and lag
  • Experimenting with new process
  • Improving service process
  • Monitoring service process

When execution become a core element in an organization’s culture, we will begin to see engaged staff, clear objectives and roles, and performance from our staff.

This is an adapted excerpt from John’s book “Dim Sum Leadership”. His latest book “Dim Sum Leadership: Your Second Serving” continues the powerful and insightful series on leadership for busy executives.