What We Get Paid to Do…Execute

 

by Jim Struck
as published in Mr. Struck’s column in ACA International’s newsletter, Management Trends, December, 2007.

As we cross over from the end of one year to the beginning of another many of us have spent time formulating plans for what we want 2008 to look like.  We have explored many possibilities and crafted goals for the upcoming year.  All of us likely created some performance goals around recovery, reducing expenses, increasing referrals, etc.  In addition, many agencies craft goals related to their management of the organization (i.e., hiring/selection process, performance review process, compliance, collection work flow, etc.).

In reflecting on my own experience, I figured that I have gone through this process over 30 times.  That doesn’t include the additional times of creating longer term visions (three to five years).  What I learned in those 30 – 40 planning sessions is that “less is more.”  I learned that the fewer large initiatives we undertook the greater the chance we would execute on those initiatives.  It all seemed counter intuitive at first, particularly when dealing with an outside Board which at one point may have seen as many as 20 goals on an annual basis.

The evolution of our planning process was a desire to have more people engaged AND the desire to have everyone in the agency connected to what we wanted to accomplish.  That…and some very good empirical information from the Franklin/Covey people about an organization’s ability to execute helped move us to another level of looking at planning.  The Covey information indicated that an organization’s ability to execute on its goals decreases after three and by the time an organization reached more than ten goals/initiatives that there was little chance that the organization would do any of their initiatives with quality.  You see, humans are built to handle one major thing at a time (my apologies to all you extreme multi-taskers).

Not only was it a function of number of goals, but also a function of what was most important.  Along the way we learned the power of one filtering question “Is this initiative the most important thing we can do, and if we don’t do it nothing else will matter?” This “survival” question forced a whole new level of thinking.  We had lots of stuff we thought was critical (i.e., technology upgrades, enterprise software, lowering our net cost to some number, reorganizing how we delivered our Early Out program, etc.), but at the end of the day asking ourselves this critical question not only raised a whole new level of critical thinking it also created a clearer path of where the other goals fell.

After input from all over the organization we ended up with two initiatives.  At first it seemed almost embarrassing to take only “two” initiatives to the Board until I looked thoroughly at what they encompassed.  EVERYONE would have a role in their delivery and the successful completion of the initiatives would strengthen the organization in a competitive way that was monumental.

Perhaps the biggest surprise and the greatest reward came during the process of each department creating their goals/strategy of how they would contribute to our Wildly Important Goals (WIG).  These goals were then individualized by each employee.  “How will I contribute to the WIG’s of the organization?”  We had multiple employee comments that for the first time they finally saw in a real way their role in the company’s success.  WOW!

Weekly, departments met for 10 – 15 minutes to allow everyone to report what they accomplished during the prior week toward the WIG(s) and what they would be doing the following week.  This fostered a lot of accountability…from each employee to the President.  (Note: we separated out those behaviors around WIG’s from those that helped keep the doors open.  Not everything we do each week is related to a given WIG, but making that distinction helped us distinguish those items that were urgent from those that were important, ultimately helping us have better focus.)

Key benchmarks were established and scoreboards created.  You could walk through the office and see at a glance a color (blue, green, yellow, or red) that would let you know where a department was and where the organization was in its execution at that moment.  Departments became quite creative in their scoreboards which was part of the fun.

Simple…powerful.  Planning for future success is not complicated, just difficult.  It takes discipline and a critical eye throughout the organization to arrive at what are the most important things to be working on.  Creating two or three major WIG’s allowed everyone to have command at all times of what they were there to accomplish.  That focus allowed us to create better measures (we found that meaningful measures were one of the most difficult things create) that allowed us to intervene sooner to make corrections in process, procedures, or strategy.  The process created a much higher level of individual accountability.  Everyone had to report their individual actions every week.  That gets your attention and tends to increase accountability.

In the game of execution sometimes less is more.  Now go out and have an incredible year!

 

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