The Failure to Execute

Arky Ciancutti There is a growing realization that execution—the ability to get things done—is the essential ingredient for business success. Not charisma, not strategic thinking skills, not financial acumen, just the ability to create an organization that completes the task. Indeed, in a recent Fortune cover article, CEO success is traced solely to the ability to foster execution in his or her organization.

Of course, on a moment's reflection, all of this makes perfect sense. If, say, the product never leaves the dock, or leaves too late, the company risks falling behind its competition. Companies that don't get things done lose.

Viewed from the outside, Fedex in the Nineties is an example of a company that consistently executes. Starting with a winning strategy of reliable overnight delivery, Fedex evidently has assembled the processes, infrastructure, systems, and team effort to bring that strategy to life. With Fedex you have complete visibility at all times into what is happening with your package. It is like a transparent Post Office, and it consistently provides a level of confidence that continues to distinguish itself. Fedex created a successful company by executing on delivering comfort.

So the ability to execute is a necessary condition for success: without execution, a company cannot succeed. But how important is it really? Is it enough to guarantee success? No, of course not. We can think of circumstances—changing economic conditions, technological innovations arriving unexpectedly, wars, and hurricanes—that can derail even the best-laid plans. But these are unusual events, part of the irreducible unpredictability of life, in business or elsewhere.

Are there more predictable factors that could cause failure, even if you execute correctly? Certainly. You could take all the right actions while carrying out a poorly conceived strategy, but you would be blazing a great path through the wrong forest. We agree that having a good strategy—a different matter than having good execution—is important for success, and strategy has been well-served in business literature for decades. Execution, by contrast, has been surprisingly underserved, especially given its dominant influence on outcome. For example, superior execution can overcome weak strategy, while the converse is not true. No matter how good your strategy is, poor execution dooms it to failure. Also, our definition of "execution" includes the team recognizing quickly when the strategy is not working, then raising the issue, and getting resolution. So "execution" provides an important assist to strategy, and supports the ability to correct one's course.

Given all of this, one might argue that except for unforeseen external events and assuming an adequate though not perfect strategy, the ability to execute well is virtually equivalent to success. No wonder it is considered important!

And yet, despite its importance, things still don't get done.

1.2 Why are we so bad at execution?

Why is it we are so bad at executing? Certainly, a lot has been written on the theory of getting organizations to get work done, but the problem is that nobody seems to have much to say about how to actually achieve execution every day, especially right down in the trenches. Let's take a look at some recent approaches to the topic.


One recent bestseller, Execution: The Discipline Of Getting Things Done, by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, takes a good whack at the problem. The authors bring superb credentials to the task. Bossidy was AlliedSignal's CEO during a major turnaround, and Charan is a high-powered teacher, author, and consultant to major businesses. They rightfully identified execution as "the great unaddressed issue in the business world today," and proceeded to define execution as not just tactics but "a discipline and a system" for getting things done.

They talked about the three building blocks for execution: leadership's personal priorities (i.e. the leader's commitment to getting things done), the "social software of culture change," and selecting and appraising people. They have much sound advice for leadership. And they tell lots of interesting stories, engaging inside views of high-level proceedings in the boardrooms of major corporations.

The problem with their approach is that there is no simple, single idea to focus on in the turbulence of day-to-day management responsibilities to ensure execution. Rather, there is a myriad of management techniques a powerful leader must do. Yet we know that "focusing" on many things is a formula for management failure. Consequently the reader does not find this material as a fruitful in determining how to actually make execution happen on an everyday basis.

What doesn't work

But the real problem with their approach, which is not unique to these authors, is that they basically place the responsibility for getting anything done squarely and solely on management's shoulders. Indeed, they make this quite explicit when they say "The main requirement is that you as a leader have to be deeply and passionately engaged in your organization and honest about its realities with others and yourself." And when you read the book all the way through you realize that fundamentally their approach is that strong management can make execution happen through force of personality.

We argue that this is not the best way for getting things done on a consistent basis. First, this approach relies on Superman management and places the execution spotlight only on the role of the leader, meanwhile leaving the contribution of the broader team lost in the outer penumbra of management attention. Secondly, this management style often activates fear however unintentionally. Authority alone constellates fear even before the first face-to-face encounter. Almost all of us have had the experience of working for someone who, consciously or inadvertently, induces fear, and we understand its downside. Fear of authority leads to communication geared for approval rather than dealing with actual business needs. Fear of punishment for sound risk that fails leads to generalized risk aversion and loss of creativity. Fear of raising tough issues means not raising them and therefore not addressing them.

So this Superman model creates a potentially unhealthy approach combined with an unnatural dependence on the leader. In fact, Bossidy laments how AlliedSignal fell back on its old bad (lack of) execution habits after his departure, and how difficult it was to re-establish effective execution upon his return. His experience is his own counterexample.

There's a broader problem

Looking deeper, it becomes apparent that the way we think about organizations, leading to what we might call the Hierarchical Organization, with the CEO on top and people with progressively less important positions arrayed below her, suffers from a basic weakness. That weakness is not its structure, which we leave unchanged, but rather its attitude. It places the burden of execution on the leadership, the people at the top of the typical organization chart.

This constitutes an impossible.

The Meta-Manager

Developing the Engaged Organization requires, as we will describe in detail, a new kind of leadership, one much closer to Collin's "great" leaders. We might call this the meta-manager, as he or she must now carry out two complementary tasks at the same time: managing the content of the operation in its usual dimensions, plus managing the establishment of a system in which the Engaged Organization emerges. The former has to do with the business of the day: putting together the marketing program, getting the product out, closing the sale, preparing the financial statements, and the like. The latter means watching how the team is following through on using closure and authentic commitment, monitoring the quality of communication, and, most importantly, monitoring one's own self to ensure you, the leader, are leading by example. This two-layer approach is clearly more complex than the old unitary method, and takes an expanded awareness to maintain the balance between the two. Our focus is not on telling you the manager how to run the content of your business, but rather how to add this second layer to ensure its success.

None of this, on some reflection, is surprising. If you want to cross the desert in your jeep, you will want to ensure the engine is running well since it is the engine that will get you across, not you yourself. Likewise, it is the team that will be doing the business execution, not you the leader, and you need to ensure its smooth functioning if you are to get to your intended destination.

Fortunately, given that both the principles and practice behind this method are directly and easily learned, this new role can be implemented quickly and the resulting effect experienced rapidly.

Paying The Price

Nothing good is free. To deliver on its promise, our approach requires important changes from both team members and team leaders. We must pay the price in two ways. First, the concept of drill mentioned earlier means that new habits of behavior, and indeed a new mindset, must be established in the team, and used consistently and repetitively. This is a disciplined approach. It may at first create the impression of slowing things down, but in fact results will come more quickly, starting nearly immediately. Beyond learning the techniques, this means, for example, team members must overcome any inhibition they may have regarding reluctance to ask for a closure date, or to give a date when asked. It means paying close attention to commitments before they are made, rather than trying to repair the damage of a false commitment once made. It means examining how we communicate in a new light, and seeing how we unwittingly might be generating fear in the team even though that was not our intention. The second price is that the leader, now relieved of his or her Superman role, must develop the skills necessary to be an effective meta-manager to ensure the team engine is running smoothly.

Contrast with the Hierarchical Organization

The Engaged Organization is a substantial departure from its predecessor, the Hierarchical Organization. In the latter, the assumption is performance must be legislated by leadership, and in some circumstances, people actually need to be forced to perform. In contrast, the Engaged Organization acknowledges that people have a natural desire to contribute, and that providing the right environment enables that contribution. Correspondingly, in the Hierarchical Organization it is assumed that effort must be dictated, while our method is more about liberating effort and creativity. The Hierarchical Organization operates on the assumption that the system must compensate the inherent limitations of people through tight management practice, while the Engaged Organization is more interested in harnessing the team's interest in learning and making a contribution. The management focus in the hierarchical approach operates at a single level: managing the content of the business. In the Engaged Organization leaders have a dual, complementary role in managing the content of the business as well as the integrity of the method. The result is that The Hierarchical Organization has a controlling orientation, while the Engaged Organization seeks to energize the team by eliciting a more complete participation in the work of the team. These assumptions are summarized in Table 1-1.

Copyright April, 2004, Arky Ciancutti, M.D. and Thomas Steding, Ph.D., all rights, including right to reproduce in any form, are strictly reserved.

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