Recently I wrote a blog outlining the three steps (which turned out to be four) for getting things done and wanted to take some time exploring the steps a little deeper — what will make this even more fun is my friend Renée Cormier is writing a complementary series of blogs to help with the exploration. So far we have explored the first three steps:
✔ Establish your goals and objectives
✔ Propose what you want to do
✔Debate what you want to do and make a decision how to proceed
And now for the forth step, which I will say is big… very big.
Execute on what you want to get done, and do it
As I mentioned this is a very big topic (and in fact two topics) — executing on what you have proposed and actually doing it. Over the years I have written many blogs on the topic of effective execution and for the life of me I have no idea how I can compress this into a 500-word blog. I suppose I will just dust off some relevant blogs to wet your appetite, call the whole thing a REDUX, and curate it in such a way to make my point (and hold my head high). And if you think it a little cheap of me to just repurpose old blogs then just go to the final section “The most effective way to do it, is to do it” — it pretty much summarizes everything.
Execution... the first in a series of thoughts
"Plan your work and work your plan"... simple, pithy, insightful, and used around the world.
If you are not doing this then what are you doing?
But what if you are doing this with all the effort and gusto you have, and still everything goes terribly wrong — I mean horribly (just awfully) wrong. The sun will still rise the next day in the east as it always does and you will want to (or have to) figure out what went wrong.
“You had a plan and you worked the plan... so what happened?"
This is one of those "galvanizing topics" that pits those who plan strategically against those who execute tactically — it can be great fun to get popcorn and watch the bun fight, unless of course you are in the middle of it, and then it's not as much fun. I want to point out that when I say "went wrong" I am not suggesting measuring to perfection* but rather measured against targeted expectations. Now back to the question at hand — was it a "poor plan that was executed well or a great plan that was executed poorly?"
To try and scratch at the answer to this and glean some understanding, I have a "little case study" to entertain us all.
A friend told me about the following and I have no doubt that it reflects a real situation—
A medium sized company wanted to launch a new product (a line extender). Prior to the launch date an informational YouTube video was launched which contained a call to action website address at the end (an important note to set the stage is the web page was not active). When marketing was informed they quickly activated the web page with a "Coming Soon" message. As part of the product launch, there was a sampling campaign that was highlighted on the new web page encouraging customers to request a sample. When a customer clicked on the request sample icon, the customer was taken to a page where there was no mention of the new product sample (or the ability to order one). Marketing was once again informed and two days later the web page was updated allowing the a customer to request a sample of the product and receive it once officially launched. This all happened a month before the official product launch (as god is my witness this is what I was told). It was also indicated to me that the product revenue following the official launch did not meet expectations.
I was not there but as an observer and taking the story at face value, I think it is fair to say this was a bit of an "execution shit show". I can only speculate on the reasons (and hey, why not)?
In all of this there was no thought or consideration to the customer, particularly with developing expectations that could not be met.
It seems there was no coordinated rollout plan integrating the various communication channels and activities.
There seems to be no operational process (or governance) in place to ensure activities stay controlled (and within expectations).
Quite possibly this reflects a fragmented marketing function with different agendas.
I will go out on a limb here and say that the execution of the new product was "sub optimal". I do suspect that someone, somewhere, had some more "choice words" (at least I would hope so).
Now back to the aforementioned bun fight
I think those who strategically determined the need for the new product launch have every right to throw the buns a little harder in this situation — but there is something hidden in this tale, that will never be discovered. How do we know that the new product wasn't destined to be a dud; all that time and those resources wasted because there was no market interest? Simply wasting time and resources because of an irrelevant line extender... this we will never know.
It is said that ruthlessly effective execution is needed to be successful (as well as differentiating) in an ever-growing competitive environment.
I would also suggest that optimizing your ability to execute is imperative for determining if your strategic direction hits the mark, needs course correction, or a complete overhaul. Since strategy is reliant on effective execution, the burden falls on those who execute and those who manage execution. It is also easier to start with optimizing your ability to execute effectively, as more often than not, it consists of internal variables making control and measurement easier**.
I have been doing this long enough to know when "an idea" will just not work, but in that same breath, I also know to keep my mouth shut until I can say that execution was optimal.
Then I pick up a bun.
* Perfection: something to be chased but never obtained.
** Optimizing execution is relatively easier, because most aspects are within your control such as process, resources, training, governance, and with shorter timeframes it allows for effective measurement against KPIs (Key performance Indicators). Strategy tends to have a broader macro perspective with longer time frames that are influenced by both internal and external parameters.
Execution... the second in a series of thoughts
Lying on a table in a room of a secret government installation is an envelope (yes, it is 1000 feet underground). Inside that envelope (written by a steady hand) are three words.
These three words when used together are the foundation for effective execution — in fact, without them you are more or less destined to struggle to get things done. For the sake of moving this along, let's say I commissioned the help of an Archer type espionage agent to break in and secure the envelope for us.
Before we get to those three words I should say sorry* because I can guess you may be hoping for a nice, neat, reproducible process to optimize your execution; unfortunately we need a to build a solid foundation first.
And now for the three words you have been waiting for...
"Ownership, Leadership, and The Straw-man" (Ok, technically five words). Worth the wait and hiring a secret agent for don't you think?
OWNERSHIP (very important)
Ownership is defined as the act, state, or right of possessing something and regarding optimizing execution identifying an owner is imperative, and (I need to stress this) there can only be one. The committee is the death of effective execution. A single owner — this is key!
A single owner:
Clarifies who is responsible for the expected result(s) and it is important to use a person's name (not a function). There may not be an "i" in Team but there sure is an "i" in Optimized Execution.
Optimizes communication with regard to a single voice involving progress, issues, and identifies the go to person for answers.
Establishes a champion for teams and resources to rally behind.
Reduces the personal agendas to one.
Establishes the owner of the "czar card".**
LEADERSHIP (table stakes important) —
There are a litany of leadership definitions and volumes on the subject, so let's work with this definition for the sake of argument — Leadership has been described as a process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.
A few comments with regard to effective execution:
It is imperative that a leader picks the appropriate "Owner"; aligning the task with the needed skill sets and maturity. If you don't have trust*** in the person, don't give them ownership.
The Leader should clarify the most effective way to "manage up to them" when issues and roadblocks need to be addressed.
If you are a leader that has a propensity to micromanage please just stop it — it is annoying and a big waster of time. See comments on trust above.
The owner needs to be very good at leading without a title because more often than not they will be moving up, down and laterally through the organization. The book The leader who had no title by Robin Sharma is a must read.
THE STRAW-MAN or Straw-man proposal (Most important) —
A straw-man proposal is a "brain stormed" simple draft proposal intended to generate discussion and leadership approval.
Best developed by the Owner with a small group (i.e. at least one other person), the Straw-man is used as a sounding board to pressure test your proposal. Experience has shown me PowerPoint**** is a good communication vehicle, and you should:
use strong action statements
use high level process maps
identify foreseeable challenges
identify resource requirements
(work to present this within the first week; the sleepless nights are worth it down the road)
Review the straw-man with the Leader, key stakeholders, and anyone you feel may be a resource down the road (all in the same room) — the objective of this meeting is to review your thinking so that everyone in the room will "sorta remember the meeting" three weeks later. Have any red flags called out for discussion and most importantly have the leader confirm that "directionally" he or she is comfortable with what they see (and by extension support the detail of the execution).
The scope and latitude in which the "owner" can operate and where he or she can have to go within the organization to get it done is defined. This gives the owner the answer when someone asks, "Why are you at this meeting?".
The straw-man becomes the primary communication tool to inform, identify needed resources, re-enforce directional frame work, and prevent scope creep (which is another execution killer).
This triad of Ownership, Leadership and The Straw-Man is imperative for effective execution, particularly if the organization is large (where even the simplest act of communication can be a challenge... let alone working through multiple agendas and business perspectives).
I would never suggest this as a silver bullet but I will say it has allowed me to be effective more often than not.
And if it's just you — the discussions are very easy between the Leader and the Owner but I still suggest you use THE STRAW-MAN as you will get your plan down on paper (and we know how important that is).
Next time we will talk about the fun that can be had with process maps.
* I'm Canadian so we always say sorry — more often than not though, it is analogous to the word "um" and not an actual apology.
** A leader I very much admired introduced me to the czar trump card a long time ago . There was a long ongoing discussion where he stepped in and finally said, "I rarely exercise the czar card but I am going to throw it and we are going to do it this way...". He was the owner after all and responsible in the end. (For those who don't play cards, a trump card wins over all other cards).
*** The definition of trust is belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, et cetera.
**** I will admit I am partial to PowerPoint and have made thousands of presentations — I recommend it for a number of reasons 1) lends itself very well to presenting, which you will have to do anyway 2) forces you to be crisp and concise (whereas with Word you end up with a white paper) and 3) as the project continues the presentations can build upon themselves saving you time.
Execution... the third in a series of thoughts
I had promised I would talk about the fun you can have with process mapping and I think the best segue into this would be to start with "Meeting attendance auto-Pilot" (or for those who love acronyms... MaaP*).
A lifetime ago in another world I found myself in a meeting listening to a marketing manager review a promotional initiative that was in what he called "pilot phase". It was here that I slipped into MaaP...
I'll take a moment to offer a definition for those not familiar with it — MaaP is the ability to be aware of everything happening in a meeting while mentally tending to the many other things you would be doing if not for the meeting. I should also point out this is not an aspect of disrespect but more a necessity for survival in some companies. I suspect it's comparable to an out of body experience — and now back to the meeting.
All of a sudden my MaaP drops out of warp drive and I find myself saying, "Run that by me again?" It is here that I'm retold how the promotional fulfillment component of "the cool smartphone app promotion" is fulfilled automatically in one situation, although in an other instance the fulfillment needs to be done through the sales force. There was some discussion with regard to using the sales force for promotional fulfillment and how that is a bad idea... how it distracts the sales force and increases the exposure to having a disappointed customer. The marketing manager points out that it is a "very cool app" and there were so few examples of needing the sales force in the pilot. To that, it was pointed out that the pilot would not scale in its current form. The meeting continued and I think I may have slipped back into MaaP.
Let's fast forward three months after my MaaP experience. By then that "app promotion" had rolled out into the market and my role had changed where I was now much closer to the impending storm of "a pissed off sales force and disgruntled customers". As I got into the situation it became clear few people were aware of (or even understood) the impending problem.
It was time to develop a process map to illustrate how this promotion worked — Not a bad segue eh?**.
So what is a Process Map? A process map is essentially a breakdown of a process to determine how it flows and ultimately how determine how effective it is. Those who complete process mapping look closely at elements such as the structure of a system and the flow of communication within the system. It consists of circles, boxes, diamonds and arrows representing the flow.
The circle (oval, or rounded box) represents the start or end of the process
The square represents a specific activity as part of the process
The diamond represents a decision making point (yes or no)
The arrow represents the flow and the connectors from activity to activity through the decision points.
Here is why I like the process map —
it forces you to understand your process and how you do what you do
it is a visual representative so you can literally see what you are working with, and by extension makes communication easier
it makes it much easier to identify problems and gaps in your process
it helps determine Optimization, Correction and Execution.
Now back to that process map of said promotion — it was so complicated it looked like a circuit board and when I was reviewing it with someone they simply looked at me and said, "You've got to be kidding". In the end, this process map made it easier to communicate the situation and illustrate the impact on the customer, as well as the internal impact. It ultimately led to process improvement, that although was not perfect, alleviated the immediate issues.
As I look back at this situation (and what came out of it), there are a few things resonate with me still -
Development of a process map in the beginning, as well as a better understanding of the systems that you have to work with*** would probably have driven better execution.
Smartphone Apps are not a silver bullet.
No matter how much someone tries to convince themself that there is not a problem, there is.
There is a great science to process mapping and I have learned over the years that is it is an excellent tool to help you optimize all things involved with execution.
I hope you are finding this series informative so far, as well as maybe a little entertaining. Next I suppose we should probably talk about people because it's hard to get anything done without them.
* I will be the first to admit that this could just be me because at the end of the day I have the attention span of a small insect.
** Remember I am Canadian.
*** Understanding the systems that you have available is imperative for optimized execution. It makes me nuts when people try to work outside the functionality of the system at their disposal and then blame the system for any shortcoming. I mean, I wish I had a "matter transfer device" to get around, but I don't so until then I will work with the airline industry.
Want to get things done? Erase "MAYBE" from your lexicon.
If you happen to know anyone who has come out of the General Electric "machine" you will have undoubtedly heard of, and/or experienced a "workout". The original workouts came into being as Jack Welsh, the CEO at the time, was working to right General Electric. Workouts went something like this*: a team (not including the leader) would meet to review all the issues and questions that needed to be answered to progress various projects, mandates or agendas forward. The leader would then join the rest of the team and systematically answer their questions with "YES do it", or "NO don't do it", or "I will get back to you with a YES or NO answer in a week". This initiated action.
There is a truism regarding effective execution: All action is derived from either the word "YES" or the word "NO", and any other word will lead to a vast array of inaction.
As a quick illustration** let's look at the manual outlining what to do if you see a "strange flying saucer-like thing in the air". I'm sure it doesn't read like this:
"YES" push the red emergency button. (Action)
"NO" don't push the red emergency button. (Action)
"MAYBE" push the red emergency button. (What exactly do you do with this?)
If you look at any process map or decision tree there is never the option to choose "MAYBE" because it is very hard to know what action to dive next when you hear the word "MAYBE" (or any derivation of it).
I suspect about now someone may be saying, "Wait a second, sometimes you have to say "maybe" because of a lack of information, poor timing, lack of resources, etc".
The reasons outlined really justify the answer "NO", and these suggested reasons for "MAYBE" are more a reflection what action is needed next to stop what is currently being done, or what is needed to garner a "YES" decision. "YES" and "NO" drive the process forward, while "MAYBE" keeps everything in a holding pattern... forever spinning and spinning.
"YES" and "NO" are also great data points to measure execution effectiveness.
The more you find the word "NO" being used in the decision making process, the greater chance you may have:
skill set issues
time management issues
misalignment with goals
risk tolerance issues, or a culture that struggles to drive action
If you hear "MAYBE", you can guarantee you have one or all of the above.
There is an ambivalence that comes with the word "MAYBE" and it will insidiously compromise decisiveness (which is so important in good leadership) and will feed the emotion of regret. The words "woulda, shoulda, coulda" will stick to you.
So throw the word "MAYBE" away! It will serve you well, and things will get done.
* I have not experienced the original "Workout", but have been involved in many of its "workout cousins"; sometimes affectionately called a "deep dive". I've also simplified this, and taken a little artistic licence to stress the point.
** This flying saucer sighting example struck me funny. Apologies if you didn't think so.
"The most effective way to do it, is to do it."
Amelia Earhart said this...
"The most effective way to do it, is to do it"
If you are not familiar with Amelia Earhart, she was an American aviation pioneer and the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. During an attempt to fly around the world in 1937 she disappeared over the Pacific Ocean — she was declared dead in absentia in 1939 at the age of 41.
I really like what Amelia has said as it gets to the heart of an important component of effective execution.
Although I do know at least one lovely (yet skeptical friend) who thinks that this contradicts previous thoughts I've had on effective execution, and that the words "do it" (and the possible perception that they are "fanciful" or "spontaneous") create an air of something "less effective or trite" when it comes to effective execution.
I look at it a little differently, and in fact, see great power in the words "do it".
For the sake of illustration, let's change Amelia's quote to - "The most effective way to execute, is to execute." Now this feels more formal, more "business like", more structured, and conjures up something like this —
There has been a formal review of the situation.
A formal process to develop a plan of action.
The appropriate resources were aligned to implement the plan.
A time and event schedule has been developed with regular operating mechanisms to keep us on track.
Testing where applicable is conducted.
Approval to "implement".
All very structured, very measurable, very actionable, and very intellectual.
Sometimes though, particularly as you get closer to "implementation", the plan never fully gets implemented, is delayed, or never quite happens. But how can that be, it seems so well thought out?
Simply put, decisions and actions are not simply intellectual activities, but also emotional.
We have to contend with our feelings, as these emotions can bring the best laid plans to a grinding halt — the risk of being wrong, being misjudged, making a mistake, compromising your security, or compromising status (to name a few) can result in a range of negative emotions such as fear, shame, dread, disappointment, embarrassment or frustration. All of which will challenge the most well thought out plans.
So back to Amelia's quote –
"The most effective way to do it, is to do it" speaks to the power of how the words "do it" resonate with the emotional side of the human spirit, and draws out the human energy of courage, tenacity, sacrifice, and confidence. This allows a person to overcome their doubts and fears to make the emotional decision to just "do it".
You just have to look as far as the motivational quotes that are hanging everywhere, feeding our emotional resolve —
"You only need your approval. Anyone else is a bonus."
"The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek."
Courage doesn't always roar, sometimes it is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, "I will try again tomorrow".
"Dreams come in one size, TOO BIG, so you can grow into them."
"What would you attempt if you knew you couldn't fail."
"There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing and be nothing"
"On the other side of fear lies freedom"
"The number one skill in life is not giving up"
"Accept responsibility for your life. Know that it is you who will get you where you want to go, no one else".
At the heart of all effective execution is the emotional decision to just "do it", and then setting the energy of the human spirit in place to get it done. With that emotional resolve in place, all you need is a well thought out execution plan.
Rest in Peace Amelia Earhart.