The 4 Disciplines of Execution

Every leader struggles to keep their teams focused while dealing with an ever changing environment.  Juggling the micro (customers, loads, weather), with the macro (consumer trends, competitive forces, regulations). What seemed important yesterday gets put on the back burner by the latest crisis – it is quite literally an endless treadmill. At the end of the year you may look back and say, “why didn’t we get that done?”.  Most leaders are ambitious by nature – we all want to conquer the world and everything that it throws at us. Some of us consider saying “no” as a sign of weakness or fear. As a result, we take on more than is possible to achieve. To complicate things, even if we don’t take on too much, our goals are either seen as not important enough, or not defined well enough to give our teams the focus (and the energy) that is needed.  If only there was a better way, if we could do more with less. Franklin Covey’s 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) method is what you are looking for.

The 4 Disciplines of Execution is both a program offered by Franklin Covey (for more information, click here), as well as a book written by Chris McChesney, National Execution Practice Leader for Franklin Covey, Sean Covey, Executive VP of global Solutions and Partnerships for Franklin Covey and Jim Huling, Managing Consultant for Franklin Covey’s 4 Disciplines of Execution.

The three authors describe “The 4 Disciplines of Execution as precise rules for translating strategy into action at all levels of an organization. When applied, “the 4 Disciplines produce extraordinary results by tapping the desire to win that exists in every individual.” (Forbes – 2012/04/23) The implementation of 4DX is not a top-down, nor a bottom-up process. It requires the involvement of senior leaders but at the same time gives team leaders at lower levels the freedom to define their own goals that will contribute the most to the overall goal. In short, leaders only veto, never dictate so that teams will be fully committed to the goals and to be accountable for their results.

The Franklin Covey website states that the 4DX Process has been refined to achieve 3 objectives:

  1. High quality implementation in the shortest time.
  2. Maximum leader and team engagement with minimum disruption to business operations.
  3. Sustainable WIG (Wildly Important Goal) results through full process adoption (new habits).

The 4 Disciplines:

  1. Focus on the Wildly Important Goal – only 15% of employees know their organization’s most important goals – either there are no goals, or they have too many goals. Extraordinary results can only be achieved when you are clear about what matters most. As simple as this principle may sound, few leaders ever master it. 4DX teaches why focus is so critical and how to overcome your biggest source of resistance. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple puts it this way: “We are the most focused company that I know of, or have read of, or have any knowledge of. We say no to good ideas every day. We say no to great ideas in order to keep the amount of things we focus on very small in number so that we can put enormous energy behind the ones we do choose. The table each of you are sitting at today, you could probably put every product on it that Apple makes, yet Apple’s revenue last year was $40 billion.” There are a few rules that apply to keeping focused:
    • No more than 1-2 WIGS per team or person.
    • The battles have to win the war.
    • You can veto, but don’t dictate.
    • Every goal must have a gap from X to Y by When.
  2. Act of Lead Measures – Too many people don’t know what critical activities provide the greatest leverage to achieving team goals. With unlimited time and resources, you could accomplish anything. Unfortunately, your challenge is usually the opposite: accomplish more with less. 4DX shows leaders where they can find real leverage and how to use it to produce extraordinary results.
  3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard – People play differently when they are keeping score. You also have the authority to make things happen, but you want more than that – you want the performance that only passion and engagement can produce. 4DX enables leaders to rise from authority-driven compliance to passion-driven commitment in themselves and the people they lead. Ensure that the scoreboard is a player’s scoreboard – it should be simple; highly visible to the players; has the right lead and lag measures; and tells you immediately if we are winning or losing.
  4. Create a Cadence of Accountability – Fewer than 10 percent of people meet with their manager at least monthly to discuss their progress on work goals. No matter how brilliant your plan or how important your goal, nothing will happen until you follow through with consistent action. 4DX brings the practices that drive accountability and follow through, despite a whirlwind of competing priorities. To maintain this accountability, weekly or daily meetings are held that focus on the WIG. These need to be held regularly and should not take longer than 20 minutes. In these meetings each member reports on: Did I meet last week’s commitments; Did I move the scoreboard; What will I commit to for this week? It’s human nature for people to commit to their own ideas before they commit to orders from above. Leverage this! Also, by making these commitments publicly in the meeting, they are transforming the commitments from job performance to a personal promise – a very self motivating shift in mindset.

Ultimately, Discipline 4 is the most crucial. It is the discipline where the actual “game” is played. However, without Disciplines 1 to 3, you will not have a winnable game. Chris Chesney summarizes the 4 Disciplines in this video.  Brian Johnson takes a more in depth look in this video.

There are a couple of key reasons why execution is so difficult. The first is that people must change their behaviour, something that is never easy. 4DX identifies two different types of strategies.  The first is referred to as “stroke of the pen”. This includes items such as capital investments, expansion of staff, changes in policies or programs and strategic acquisitions. The second type is Behaviour Change. This includes things like improved customer service, process adoptions, higher quality services, faster responsiveness and operational consistency. (Source: pmimilehi.org)

Stroke of the Pen strategies are relatively easy to implement and are top-driven. Behavioural Change is much harder to implement but results in lasting change and potentially a major shift in how the organization operates. Think of any time that you have achieved a goal. It probably required you to do something that you have never done before. It wasn’t easy, was it? You likely had to dig deep down to pull it off.  You had doubts that you would be able to do it and even why you should even try at all. It’s human nature to want to leave things as they are – for a lot of people change is scary. This is why the first three Disciplines are needed. It’s really just common sense – communicate to people why they need to change and where it fits with the organization’s goals. In short – tell them why it’s important. Explain what are the crucial steps that are going to define success. Finally, motivate the troops so that THEY feel passionate about winning (otherwise known as making the necessary change). If you are going change people’s behaviours, you really need them to be 100% onboard or your chances of success will be minimal.

The second challenge to execution is implementing these changes in an environment that’s already swirling with urgent priorities (what the authors call the Whirlwind). If you want the initiative to succeed, you need to have it cut through the background noise so that everyone sees that it is of the utmost importance to implement.   Again, this just makes sense. If everyone is constantly being bombarded with competing “goals” that are all “the most important”, they are just going to tune them all out unless they are given a reason to believe that one is more important. If you make it easy for them to see which goal is the most important, you give them the clarity needed to focus on it.

The authors (Forbes interview 2012/04/23) give three specific requirements for concentrating your time on what’s most important:

  1. The leader must narrow their focus. Because leaders are always drawn to new ideas, this is not only hard to initiate as well as being difficult to sustain.  Leaders need to learn how to say “no” or “not now” to new ideas until the results on the strategy have been achieved.
  2. The leader needs to focus on leading outcomes of behaviours, not overall results.  This is probably a 180 compared to the normal focus on results. The leader needs to be playing the long game, understanding that changing the outcomes or behaviours will lead to better results.  Think of it as needing to learn how to crawl before you walk, and that learning to walk must happen before you can run. Skipping steps may seem expedient and lead to a quicker “result”, but it is probably at the cost of not being sustainable.  Once the focus is off, your staff could likely fall back on “the way we always did it”. Not only will the point of what you tried to implement be lost, but staff will probably become more cynical about future initiatives, making them less likely to succeed. The authors put it like this: “focusing solely on results doesn’t drive the highest performance – it’s like driving a car while looking in the rear-view mirror.”
  3. Create a sense of shared accountability. When accountability is only felt between each team member and their boss, the effect is limited.  Make team members feel accountable to each other and performance shifts from being professional to personally important. Most people will work hard to avoid disappointing their boss, they will work even harder to avoid disappointing their team. The result is a significantly increased level of performance and follow-through.

Much of 4DX rests on the principle of diminishing returns – the more you try to do, the less you accomplish. Most of us are ambitious and want to do more, even when we know we shouldn’t. It’s hard to say no or not now to a good idea, even more so if it is a great one. However, there will always be a lot of good ideas, more than you or your team can execute.  Therefore, the first Discipline is focusing on the Wildly Important Goal (WIG). You need to start with one (or at most two) wildly important goals to avoid trying to improve everything at once. The term “wildly important” makes it clear to the team that this is what will matter the most. Just setting the WIG is not enough – it must have a clearly measurable result as well as a target date for the result to be achieved.  As simple as this seems, the authors have found that most leaders struggle to reduce their strategic concepts into a single “from X to Y by When” finish line, even though this delivers a tremendous degree of clarity to the team.

To understand why you want to keep a compelling scorecard, think about a group of teenagers playing basketball and how they change once the score is being kept.  It’s simple – people play differently when they are keeping score. You have already defined what is required to “win”, but people need to see where they are in terms of achieving that win.  Everybody likes to be a winner. Think of the effort that a team puts in when they are in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game of a series and are down by a run. The definition of success is clear, everyone understands what they need to do to achieve the goal and there is no other option but to execute.  You need to offer the same thing for your team. The scorecard needs to be designed to motive the team members to play to win. Keep it simple, visible, have the right leading and lagging measures and make sure that it tells them immediately if they are winning or losing. So, if your goal is to increase sales of Product X by 15% by December 31st, show the team where they are sitting – if it’s at 14%, and they see that there are Z dollars worth of orders in the pipe then it’s simple for them to understand how much more in additional sales needs to be found.  And if the goal has already been met, then stretch the goal. Keep it attainable, and even better, let the team set it. That’s the ultimate in making the team members accountable to each other. Have them determine what each member is going to do, set the total as the new target and watch the performance.  Think of it, who wants to be the one that let the team down? The team will be committed to achieving the goal and will put their maximum effort at achieving it. That sort of comradery can be sustained, reinforcing the new behaviours and aiming them towards higher performance.

Still skeptical that this is real and not just some theory? Franklin Covey’s website (www franklincovey.com), states that they have tested and refined these principles with hundreds of organizations and over 126,000 teams over many years.  Below, J.W Marriott and Sonny Perdue share how their organizations to drive better results:

Many of the foundational values of Marriott are embodied within The 4 Disciplines of Execution. By utilizing this process inside our organization, our leaders and teams have been able to set and achieve extraordinary goals, which have had a significant impact on making ‘Our Guests’ Experience’ truly remarkable. Any organization can create these same kinds of breakthrough results if they apply the principles and processes taught in this book!” – J.W. Marriott Jr, Chairman and CEO Marriott International Inc. (see video here)

“The State of Georgia had unprecedented success as a result of implementing the principles outlined in The 4 Disciplines of Execution. We certified hundreds of leaders to take the disciplines to every department, achieving unprecedented results in customer service, quality improvement and cost reduction. These execution principles are a must for any government agency that is seeking to be world class.” – The Honorable Sonny Perdue, Governor of Georgia, 2003-2011

These principles may seem like common sense, but they require a leader to have the discipline and knowledge to implement them.  They tend to be out of step (or even the opposite) of how we normally measure the effectiveness of a leader. It will require breaking out of the mould of looking for quick fixes that increase our quarterly results. The leader must learn how to narrow their focus and have the laser-like focus to keep to only one or two goals, achieving more by focusing on less.  It’s not easy, but greater things are possible for those who try it.

Here’s to a year of Execution in 2019! #bebetter

 

Objectives and Key Results: Using OKRs to Execute in 2019

Earlier this year, a colleague of mine enthusiastically recommended a book to me. The book he mentioned was ‘Measure What Matters’ by John Doerr, a venture capitalist and partner with Kleiner Perkins, one of the early investors in companies like Google, Amazon, Sun Microsystems and Twitter (among many others). This book introduces an operational framework for business and personal life, called OKRs.

Before we go further, you may be thinking “What does a book by a Silicon Valley Venture capitalist have to do with My Business?” The answer is everything. Competently and rapidly executing on a well-vetted strategy is a pursuit that businesses, and leaders from all industries should commit to.

A couple of weeks ago I finally began to read ‘Measure What Matters’. Upon completion, it struck me as perhaps a simple (and affordable) way to take businesses to the next level.  Here is our breakdown of OKRs.

The History of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)

OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. The concept was developed by Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel.  Mr. Grove had a simple but effective way of looking at management – “The key result has to be measurable. But at the end you can look, and without any arguments answer: Did I do that, or did I not do it? Yes? No? Simple, no judgements in it.”

In Measure What Matters, Doerr notes that OKRs became central to Google’s culture as a “management methodology that helps ensure that the company focusses on the same important issues throughout the organization”. In the forward to Doerr’s book, Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), wrote “OKRs have helped lead us to 10x growth, many times over. They’ve helped make our crazily bold mission of ‘organizing the world’s information’ perhaps even achievable. They’ve kept me and the rest of the company on time and on track when it mattered the most.”

Doerr was introduced to OKRs as a salesperson working for Intel in 1975 when he attended a course at Intel that Andy Grove (regularly) taught. Leveraging this education, and practical application within Intel, Doerr used this method to provide the founders of Google to think big and to take action. The concept of OKRs quickly became part of Google’s culture, and is still the core of the behemoth. Other firms that have used OKR include LinkedIn, Twitter and Uber.  However, as mentioned above, the technique is applicable across all industries and organizational sizes.

OKRs: Simplicity in Action

Doerr’s (Grove’s) method can be distilled to the simple statement “I will achieve ‘X’ Objective as Measured by ‘Y’ Key Results.”  The objective is anything that you want to accomplish, that can be measured by numerically-based expressions that point to either success, or progress towards the objective.  An objective may seem easy to develop, however, knowing what the right objectives are can take a significant amount of time and discussion to come up with.

To start with, the objective needs to be something that can be completed by 2-5 key results or actions. You also do not want to have too many objectives, otherwise it will be too difficult to place enough effort at all of them.  Another thing to keep in mind is that an objective must be clear, ambitious, actionable and able to be understood by employees at all levels of the organization. This is important because it ensures that everyone understands the company’s goals and can get on board with them.

Key Results (the defined actions that result in a completed or re-considered objective) also need to be very specific, as they will guide people to ensure that all work is in line with the goals. It must be measurable, attainable, be more than a bit difficult to achieve, and most importantly, quantitative. Key results should for individuals and teams out of their comfort zones. These key results act as a scorecard to see how well the objective is being attained.

Marissa Mayer, a former Google Vice President (and CEO of Yahoo) put it succinctly “if it does not have a number, it is not a key result” (source: filipecastro.com). So, saying “increase the number of new customers” is not a key result, but saying “we bring on 30 new customers by Day, Month, Year” is because it can be quantified. In a lot of ways, it goes back to the old saying that you must be able to measure something in order to be able to manage it. In this case, quantifying makes the goal clearer.  In this case, having a second key result that says “$100,000 in gross sales from new customers” further clarifies the goal, but we aren’t done yet. A third key result that states, “operating profit of $20,000 from new customers”. In each case we have attached a number that defines if the key result has or has not been met. They go from “we want to increase the number of new customers we gain in this period” to “we want that mix of new customers to add up to a certain amount of sales.” This makes sense – if all your new customers only bring you one or two trips per quarter, it’s going to need more than just 30 of them to reach that sales target.  Going further, the new customers must be bringing in a certain average operating profit margin. This intuitively makes sense – bringing in new customers purely by using lower prices to compete is not going to reach the third key result. As you can see, what you choose as your key results has a significant impact on how the objective is tackled by either this level or by the levels below. Even in this example, they can have a very powerful impact on how the goals are achieved.

Key Results for one level of the organization can become the objectives for a lower level.  The concept of a contributing goal is that it contributes to a higher-level (macro) goal. The contributing goal is owned by someone lower down the chain in the organization and drives the progress of the senior goal.  Note that a contributing goal does not have to be less important, it just signifies that it is owned at a lower level of the organization. As an example, the CEO’s objectives are the top goals for the company. The VP’s goals will be contributing goals to the CEO’s objectives, just as a department head’s goals will be contributing goals to the VP. Depending on what the objectives are, they may continue to cascade down, or they may eventually stop at a certain level that is the lowest one that has responsibility to influence the attainment of that objective.  As an example, an objective that deals with customer service may flow to the most junior positions, but one to do with reducing overheads through the reduction of headcount will not likely go below a department head (or higher, depending on the company’s structure).

 

As defined by OKRs, an objective is considered to be accomplished if the key results hits 70-75% of the target. Attaining 100% can indicate that the key results were not made ambitious enough.  This is where creating key results can be a bit of an art form.  Too ambitious of a target can be demotivating while at the same time, one that is too easy to attain will not result in enough effort being put forth to really move the organization forward.  It will not be enough to create ‘purpose momentum’ among the troops. If the key results and objectives are getting attained too quickly, then be prepared to restructure them to get the proper balance and address any issues.

Many sites offer best practices – here are a few common ones:

  • Separate OKRs from compensation and promotions to enable ambitious goals
  • Try to keep to no more than 3 objectives at any time
  • Each objective should have 3-5 key results
  • Set objectives on a quarterly basis as going much longer loses the team’s focus
  • Review progress at a minimum monthly, weekly is preferred so that corrections can be made before problems become too large
  • OKRs should be public – preference is for them to be online and in front of all employees. This allows all employees, regardless if they are included in the OKR, to align their actions with the overall goals of the organization.
  • Sweet spot is to achieve 70% of the results

So how do I get started? There are several software tools available on a subscription or traditional licensing basis (including many free options).  Commercial products include Asana, Weekdone, Perdoo, BetterWorks, 7Geese, 15Five and Atiim are cloud-based, subscription software solutions, each running between $0 and $20 per user per month, depending on the package of services that you require and the size of your team.  Most of these packages will allow you to visualize your objectives, key results and what progress has been made on them.

Personally, I am a big fan of Asana, and use this tool professionally and personally to measure performance on key results and objectives. Asana has a how-to guide (for more information, click here) and offers a pre-created template for creating a company goals and objectives project.  They make it quite user friendly to get up and running. The steps are straight-forward:

  1. Create a list or board project called company goals & objectives. This should be made as a public project so that everyone in the organization can stay aligned with these goals.
  2. Sections or board columns are used to categorize the objectives, such as by team or time period. Additional custom fields can be added to do additional categorization.
  3. Create tasks for the objectives and put them in the proper section for easy organizing.
  4. Assign the task to the primary person responsible for achieving it.
  5. Set a date range for each objective.
  6. Fill out any relevant custom fields and add any additional information so that its clear what the objective is about.
  7. Use the progress tab to communicate major updates on a regular basis so that everyone has a quick idea of how the entire company is progressing toward attaining the objectives.

If you have multiple OKR templates, Project Managers can use Portfolios to help monitor, report and see real-time statuses of multiple initiatives in one place.  Portfolios pull information from each project’s progress tab and quickly create a dashboard to help identify what objectives are on target and which ones are at risk. For more information, consult the Asana how-to guide here.

Springest is a company that has implemented OKR tracking (among other items) with Asana. To view a video where Springest founder Ruben Timmerman discusses how they use Asana to implement and grade their progress on OKRs, click here.

Want to get started on OKRs without incurring additional, external costs? There are several Excel or Google Sheets based templates that you can use to get started.  Most of these are free or are at a very nominal cost to acquire. These can generally be modified to suit your specific requirements. Most of these are suitable for small teams (depending on the template this is up to about 50 employees) and generally this is by design as many are offered by the same companies that offer the full featured software suites that we mentioned previously. Besides the price, there are a few other advantages with these spreadsheet-based templates:

  • You can get up and running quickly as the only real learning curve is creating the OKRs
  • No additional IT overhead is required beyond a shared folder where users can see the sheet
  • Because many of these are created by specific vendors, they do offer a limited view of what that vendor offers in terms of OKR tracking

A minimum amount of training is needed to show end users how to interpret the data.

They do have a few drawbacks that you need to keep in mind:

  • You will want to appoint a gatekeeper that maintains the master copy while sharing a different copy, possibly resulting in some people having the wrong version of the document
  • The data will only be a snapshot as real time will either be very difficult or impossible depending on what platform the sheet is kept on
  • There is a risk that data could get accidentally overwritten, possibly requiring reverting to a backup copy
  • Spreadsheets are portable so there is a risk that the objectives and their results could find their way outside of the organization.

Some of the available options include:

  • How-to-OKR.com that not only provides a template but also a short video walk through as well as an online class in how to get started with OKRs.
  • com that offers a template designed for up to 25 employees.
  • com offers an Excel based template (note, a registration form is required to get the download link)
  • me offers a pdf OKR tracking sheet that can be used manually (note – a registration form is required to get the download link). Recommended only for either a test project or very small teams
  • com offers a template in multiple formats as well as examples and other templates that may be of value to teams starting out with OKR
  • 50Folds offers a Google Sheets template for up to a 20-member team as well as a rough guide on how to use it
  • com offers a 6-step guide as well as an Excel-based template

There are many others that can be found with a quick Google search using “free OKR template”. Adding “Excel” or “Google Sheets” will help narrow down to your preferred spreadsheet program. Regardless of what method you use, put this technique to use!  It’s a very functional way to ensure that your entire organization is working together on the same mission, and towards the same horizon. Make the project public, keep people informed and you will find that even employees not directly involved in the OKRs will start aligning their tasks towards what the project has set as objectives.  You may not see growth as explosive as Google’s, but it’s like an Olympic rowing team. The teams that work together in unison, dipping their oars in the same direction and rhythm are who perform the best.