Last week I read Execution by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan. I felt the book was filled with too many long-winded stories and could have been reduced in size by at least half, but I liked the overall message, which is that execution is a key part of strategy. Let me ‘splain…. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
I’ll cover how this principle can be applied both for a business and for an individual.
First, let’s say you run a business. You set some goals for the next year, and then you map out a plan to achieve those goals. Everything looks good on paper. But then your company tries to execute the strategy over the course of the year, and it flops. But it flops not because the strategy itself was flawed but because the execution of the strategy was bungled. It’s like a football coach calling for a particular play (a play that is the correct call for the given situation), and the players on the field execute that play ineptly — they don’t do what they’re supposed to do. So even though the coach called the right play, the team couldn’t execute it well enough to get the expected result.
Bossidy and Charan point out that this is an extremely common problem in business. They use AT&T as one of their many examples. A few years ago AT&T set some ambitious goals and worked out a strategy that seemed perfectly sound, but they couldn’t execute it well enough, and it cost them dearly.
The authors recommend a methodology for including execution as part of any strategy. So if you’re going to make a plan, you need to drill down into how you’re actually going to execute it and figure out if it can actually be done. Do you have the right people with the right skills? Do you have the right resources? Is there enough time to pull it off? So that coach who called for a play his team couldn’t execute actually called the wrong play then; he needed to consider the likely execution of the play before deciding which play to call.
How many times have you seen this problem in software development? A brilliant design for a new software product is created, but the development team can’t actually create it. They don’t have the right mix of talent, management, and resources required to get the job done on time and on budget. It doesn’t matter how great the plan is if the team can’t actually execute it.
One of the reasons I read books about big businesses is that I often learn ideas that can be applied as an individual. So even though the authors of Execution only focused on big business strategy, let’s consider how this concept might be applied to you as an individual.
Have you ever written out a plan for your day or your week and then failed to execute the plan successfully? Have you ever worked out a new diet or exercise plan and then not followed it? Add my name to the guilty list too.
So you created what seemed like a good plan, but then you bungled the execution. But couldn’t you say that the plan was unsound to begin with then because it didn’t take execution into account? If you make a plan for your day, you have to consider your own strengths and weaknesses as an integral part of that plan. However unsatisfying this sounds, it means you have to consider your level of self-discipline, laziness, tendency to procrastinate, intelligence, skills, etc. If you assigned your plan to someone else just like you, what would the expected outcome be? Would that person be able to execute it? If not, where would they fall short? What kind of plan could that person execute well?
Another way of saying this is that personal planning requires a high degree of self-awareness. If you know you’re 80% likely to procrastinate on your very first “to do” item and that doing so will throw off the rest of your plan, then your plan itself is unsound. You have to muster enough awareness to know how you’re most likely to execute it.
This is one of those ideas that sounds like common sense, yet it isn’t commonly applied. I’ve fallen victim to this trap often, planning my days in advance as if I’ll execute them with android-like proficiency and failing to accurately predict what’s actually going to happen when I try to execute it with all my human weaknesses. It’s hard to look at a really cool-looking plan for your day and say to yourself, “Mr. Data could execute this, but I probably can’t.”
So the general solution is to take a hard look at yourself, develop an awareness of your strengths and weaknesses, and get to know which kinds of plans you can execute well and which you’ll probably bungle. Whenever you make a plan, consider how you’re likely to execute it. Keep track of how well you do execute and under what conditions you work like a dog vs. being lazy. As you create your own plans then, think about how you can re-create the conditions where you work best while minimizing the conditions which distract you.
Now if you discover that overall, you’re really bad at executing what you need to get done, despite doing your best to compensate, then you may consider looking for a different line of work that’s a better fit for your skills and talents. You can also educate yourself to improve your skills, turning your areas of weakness into new strengths. What you don’t want to do though is remain stuck in a situation where your execution always falls short of your plans.