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4DX Sydney

4 Lessons All Leaders Need to Learn About Execution

Learn how to execute in business or watch your business get executed

4DX Sydney

You could be forgiven for thinking a workshop about execution was going to be dry. It’s a subject that’s shrouded in confusion and mystery, and according to Chris McChesney, is something that most leaders are embarrassed to admit they don’t know much about. The uncomfortable truth?

People don’t execute because it’s hard.

With that in mind, 4 Disciplines of Execution started with a question: 

             Why is execution a leader’s greatest challenge?

Returning after a successful 2018 workshop series, best-selling author Chris McChesney traveled to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to not only answer that question, but to give leaders a simple, repeatable and effective formula for executing on their strategic priorities. 



‘Anything you’re trying to execute on...will fall very neatly into one of two categories, which we’ve named stroke of the pen and behaviour change.’

Before diving into the disciplines, Chris explained these two categories that play a role in prioritising business goals. Stroke of the pen activities might include staff expansion, policy changes or strategic acquisition. They are expensive, they are big, and they have consequences

Behaviour changes, on the other hand, might include operational consistency, improved customer service or faster responsiveness. These all require a change in habit, and only work if people buy in. This is the really hard stuff that leaders often don’t take responsibility for. W. Edwards Demming summarised it by stating:

‘Anytime the majority of the people behave a certain way the majority of time, the problem is not the people. It is the system, and the leader needs to own that.’

It’s Always Urgent

‘Human beings…[have] a really strong built-in tendency to move to something urgent, even in the face of something way more important.’

We have an urgency addiction which is like any other addiction, except we all seem to have it so we don’t notice it’s there. This breaks down when we start to think about the two main types of activities we are constantly managing: 

The Whirlwind: the day job

Goals: new activities

Both are good, but they don’t get along. They compete for time and attention, and our brains tag whirlwind activities as urgent. As such, anything that doesn’t seem urgent - i.e. anything that isn’t in the whirlwind - will never get off the ground. 

‘The trick to execution and strategy is not about executing on the goal, it’s about executing on the goal in the middle of a 100mph whirlwind.’

Delegates across the sessions were clear: they all feel the pull of the whirlwind. Read on for Chris McChesney’s four lessons on executing in the face of this daily challenge. 

Lesson 1: Focus 

‘Leaders do not have the luxury of painting on a blank canvas... most brains are already filled up, and you’re working on the margin.’ 

The Rules

  1. Fight the fewest battles necessary to win the war
  2. Choose just one WIG per team at the same time
  3. You can veto but don’t dictate
  4. A WIG must have a gap (from X to Y by when)

The rules are simple enough, until you come up against the two traps of focus:

  1. Saying yes to all the good ideas: your goal count may go up, but your goals achieved with excellence will go down.
  2. Turning everything in the whirlwind into a goal.

‘There will always be more good ideas than there is capacity to execute.’

You have to learn how to say no to good ideas.

What is a WIG?

Your WIG is your Wildly Important Goal, and if your WIG encompasses everything you do, you haven’t successfully narrowed your focus. Chris breaks it down like this:

80% of your energy should go towards the whirlwind (this could easily be 100%, but it’s your job to get it there)

20% of your energy should go towards achieving your WIG

The small steps are the ones that make the biggest difference. As such, your WIG needs to be specific not vague, focused not broad, and always managed with a due date. Get more strategic by going smaller, not biggerLesson 2: Leverage

Acting on the lead measures is all about leverage, and clearly identifying what Chris McChesney calls the Lag and Lead Measures.

Lag Measure: measures the goal 

Lead Measure: measures something that leads to the goal, and is both predictive and able to be influenced.

Chris used a classic example to tease this out, asking participants to imagine someone who is trying to lose weight. In this instance, the lag measure is their weight, the number they see on the scale. The lead measures, however, are the calories they consume, their diet and the amount they exercise. Everyone understands how to lose weight, but diving into the details is far less common.

‘There’s a giant difference between knowing a thing, and knowing the data behind the thing.’

Having ownership over the metric will transform how your people work, and how responsible they feel for their own results (more on this later). Give them a menu, don’t order for them. Lesson 3: Engagement

‘People play differently when they’re keeping score.’

Before he explained the rules, Chris made a very important distinction between leaders keeping score for their teams, and the individual team members keeping their own scores. Keeping a compelling scoreboard is all about ownership and accountability.

The Rules

Your scoreboard must be:

  1. Simple and separate 
  2. Highly visible to the players
  3. Designed with right lead and lag measures 

Keeping score brings up levels of engagement, as people start to feel like they’re playing a winnable game. Discipline 1, 2 and 3 create a winnable game. Discipline 4, is how you play the game

Lesson 4: Accountability 

Creating a cadence of accountability is in many ways, the most important discipline. It’s about leaders asking their teams:

What are the one or two most important things you can do this week to impact the lead measures? 

Start with a WIG meeting, made up of three parts:

  1. Report on last week’s commitments
  2. Review and update scoreboard
  3. Make commitments for next week

As you become more comfortable with this process, you’ll notice each team member feeling a sense of responsibility for their own score. Enthusiasm and commitment in turn, increase.

How to Get Started

‘These disciplines, they say easy, they do hard.’ 

You’ve got the content, you see its value, and you’ve started to implement the process. But how do you stop yourself falling back into old habits? Keep coming back to these challenges:

The focus challenge: how do I focus (prioritise) on the wildly important?

The complexity challenge: how do I focus on transparency and simplicity?

The alignment challenge: how do I get our different teams all pulling in the same direction?

Execution is hard. It takes focus, buy in and the biggest challenge of all: changes in behaviour. The only thing harder, is knowing you have the right idea, a clear strategy and a fantastic team, but never reaching your full potential.

Yes, it’s hard, but it’s worth it.

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