“Execution is the greatest unaddressed issue in the business world today.”

This was the conclusion of CEO’s like Michael Dell (Dell Computers), LR Raymond (Exxon Mobile), and Ralph Larsen (Johnson & Johnson) a decade ago.  As we embark upon another year I am reflecting on this notion.  I rarely use words like ‘greatest,’ or ‘never,’ or ‘always’ so saying that “execution is the greatest unaddressed issue in the business world today” gives me pause.

When I think about those individuals and organizations that Dan and I have helped with their ability to execute, I recognize some common themes.

  • Lack of ability or willingness to enter into strategic dialogue.
    • Having a dialogue that lacks the rigor of candor and diversity.
  • A lack of understanding that in the world of organizational execution, less is more (fewer initiatives that represent greater impact and value for the organization).
  • Understanding the impact on their clients of what the organization wants to execute on (how they are linked).
  • A well-defined, consistent process of planning and execution.
  • Clarity.  Of purpose, of what we wish to achieve, what roles people will play in getting it done and a well thought out time frame.
  • Measures that are leading indicators (predictors) of our success; measures that are lagging indicators – results of our execution.
    • Visible – everyone knows the measures and what the results mean.
  • Individual and team accountability. Doing what we say we will do when we say we will do it.
  • Rewards.  Depending on the culture of the organization (what’s expected), this can range from a ‘pat on the back’ to financial rewards.  Regardless of rewards, underlying an organization that executes well is the satisfaction of a job well done.

Execution, for me, is like a three dimensional puzzle, with many moving parts all influenced by the nature of the culture and its ‘zest’ for getting things done well.  While at any given moment you can find lots of ‘doing’ occurring by many individuals and departments, the foundation for success begins with the nature of the dialogue.

Dan and I label it “Strategic Dialogue” because it is the dialogue that surrounds where we are going and why.  This dialogue occurs at many levels of the organization, with the ‘stewards’ or ‘shepherds’ being senior leadership, at least at the beginning.

How diverse and ‘robust’ the discussions are is often a measure of the level of trust that exists within the team or organization.  If diverse opinions and candor are valued then the nature of the dialogue tends to have more elements of curiosity (questions) and creativity (what else) is present.  This type of dialogue not only permeates discussions that are strategic, but tends to be present in operational discussions that are tactical (“Is this the best way?”  “Is there another right way?”  “How does this best serve our client(s) and our organizational goals?”).

This level of dialogue lends itself to greater clarity of purpose and focus.  If we are clear about our purpose then deciding what my role is, what your role is and who is going to do what and  when becomes much easier.  It has been my experience that individuals and organizations are often de-railed from successful execution right here – their dialogue reflects an organizational ‘malaise’ lacking in sufficient candor, clarity, and accountability.  They say they are in agreement when they are either unclear or don’t want to risk ‘rocking the boat.’  As a result, more often than not the stated things don’t get done timely, if ever.  This activity saps individual and organizational ‘energy’ leading to mediocrity or worse.

The other area we see major dys-function is in the selection of major organizational initiatives (goals).  Studies show that when we attempt to do more than three major goals in a year we see a degradation in the organization’s ability to do them well and do them timely.  That degradation continues as we expand beyond three. When we hit 10 or more major goals we are able to do none of them well.  We found that one of the best qualifying questions to determine the value of a goal was to ask, “Is this something that if we don’t do, nothing else will matter?”

The power of ‘less is more’ was illuminated for me by Mary, an 18 year employee of our legal area.  We were two-thirds through our first year with only two initiatives and improved measures.  Mary came up to me one day and said, “For the first time in my professional life I understand how my job fits into the company’s goals.”  When I asked her what made the difference, she said, “There are only two major goals.  I can remember them easily, and can see how the work I do in legal helps us hit our overall targets.” Bingo!  One of the great by-products of this discovery was the realization of how much more engaged our workforce was as a result of being able to see how their work had meaning.

It took me until late into my career in the corporate world to understand the power of ‘less is more’ as well as the necessity of dialogue, agreement, accountability, measures and results to fully understand how the process of execution worked in and for organizations.  As I like to say, “It’s not complex, just difficult.”  Execution may not be the ‘greatest unaddressed need’ in an organization, but after reflecting, I would say it’s near the top.

Have a great and productive 2015.