Why do some great ideas fail? Simply put: there’s too much talk and not enough walk. Some organizations are really good at writing down a strategy but much less effective at actually implementing it. The greatest plans in the world mean nothing unless there’s execution: actually getting the work done.

But what keeps organizations from executing? The authors identify three sub-problems and one major problem. The sub-problems are:

  1. Lack of clarity: While the goals of the organization may be clear to those at the top, they tend to become less clear as they work themselves down to the bottom. Many workers do not know what the goals of the organization even are. Thus, they cannot execute on something they don’t know.
  2. Lack of commitment: Some workers know about the goals but they aren’t committed to them. They don’t “own” the goals for themselves.
  3. Lack of accountability: Leaders may state grand goals, but they don’t regularly follow up and hold people accountable for actually accomplishing the goals. They talk it up, but don’t make sure that everyone will actually follow it.

However, the authors identify the major obstacles to execution as the whirlwind, the day-to-day responsibilities that take up the majority of a worker’s time. Many workers do not have enough “brain space” or margin in their schedule to actually understand and then act upon the goals of the organization. In other words, most people are overwhelmed with their workload and the thought of adding anything else to their plate is daunting.

So how do you go about executing? The authors identify four disciplines that leaders need to cultivate in order to execute a vision or goal:

1. Focus on the Wildly Important Goals

Leaders need to focus upon the most important things that an organization should be doing. Ironically, the more goals an organization has, the less execution there will be. Why? Because focus breeds progress. You have to stay focused on what’s most important. Furthermore, when people feel like they’re trying to accomplish something important, rather than wasting their time, they will have greater buy in.

2. Track Lead Measures, not Lag Measures

Lag measures are outcomes: profits, numbers, etc. Lead measures are behaviors: making calls, writing papers, etc. Too often we focus on the lag measures. The problem is that we cannot control outcomes! Instead, we need to focus on what we can control: our own actions. So each goal needs to generate a set of actions that will help us accomplish it.

3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

People have to know how they’re doing. But the “scoreboard” needs to be developed by the team, not solely by the leader. Once people are invested with “winning,” they will make the execution happen.

4. Have a Cadence of Accountability

You need to check in and hold people accountable for doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

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