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 ísplainÖ. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
Iíll cover how this principle can be applied both for a business and for an individual.
First, letís 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. Itís 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 ó they donít do what theyíre supposed to do. So even though the coach called the right play, the team couldnít 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 couldnít execute it well enough, and it cost them dearly.
The authors recommend a methodology for including execution as part of any strategy. So if youíre going to make a plan, you need to drill down into how youíre 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 couldnít 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 canít actually create it. They donít have the right mix of talent, management, and resources required to get the job done on time and on budget. It doesnít matter how great the plan is if the team canít 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, letís 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 couldnít you say that the plan was unsound to begin with then because it didnít 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 youíre 80% likely to procrastinate on your very first ďto doĒ 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 youíre most likely to execute it.
This is one of those ideas that sounds like common sense, yet it isnít commonly applied. Iíve fallen victim to this trap often, planning my days in advance as if Iíll execute them with android-like proficiency and failing to accurately predict whatís actually going to happen when I try to execute it with all my human weaknesses. Itís hard to look at a really cool-looking plan for your day and say to yourself, ďMr. Data could execute this, but I probably canít.Ē
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 youíll probably bungle. Whenever you make a plan, consider how youíre 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, youíre 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 thatís 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 donít want to do though is remain stuck in a situation where your execution always falls short of your plans.