The 4 Disciplines of Execution – Leading 4DX

When you operate using only lag measures it’s like posting the score only at the end of the game. But by then, it’s too late to change how you play your game. One of the most significant jobs as a leader is keeping score.

WIG = Wildly Important Goal

Strategy vs Execution

There are two principal things a leader can influence when it comes to producing results: your strategy (or plan) and your ability to execute that strategy.

Once you’ve decided what to do, your biggest challenge is getting people to execute it at the level of excellence you need.
Why is execution so difficult? After all, if the strategy is clear and you as the leader are driving it, won’t the team naturally engage to achieve it? The answer is no, and it’s likely your own experience has proven this more than once.

The Real Problem With Execution

Changing a culture meant changing the conversation. And to change the conversation, people would need new words, especially words about behaviors that would lead to winning results.

Any initiative you as a leader drive in order to significantly move your team or organization forward will fall into one of two categories. The first mainly requires a stroke of the pen, and the second is a breakthrough, requiring a change in behavior.

To achieve a goal you have never achieved before, you must start doing things you have never done before.

In a key study on organizational change, the global management consulting firm Bain & Company reports these findings: “About 65 percent of initiatives required significant behavioral change on the part of employees – something that managers often fail to consider or plan for in advance.”

You’ve almost certainly found yourself facing the whirlwind when you were trying to explain a new goal or strategy to someone who works for you. Can you remember the conversation? Your mind is centered clearly on the goal, and you are explaining it in easy-to-understand terms. But while you’re talking, the person you are talking to is backing slowly out of the room, all the while nodding and reassuring you, but trying to get back on what they would call the real work – another name for the whirlwind.
Is that employee fully engaged in achieving the goal? Not a chance. Are they trying to sabotage your goal or undercut your authority? No. They’re just trying to survive in their whirlwind.

Almost every organization also experiences significant variability in performance – highs and lows that are predominantly driven by the Not Yets and the Nevers. The greater your percentage of Not Yets and Nevers, the more inconsistent your results will be.

These two dynamics – pockets of excellence and variability of performance – exist in both the best – and worst-performing organizations. What actually separates the best and worst performers is the shape of their respective curves. The high performer’s adoption curve is more “right and tight”. So while leaders have to accept that they will always have an adoption curve, they do not have to accept the shape of that curve. Leaders who accept the shape of their adoption curve are, in a sense, giving up on improving execution and have limited themselves to improving results only through changing strategy. The purpose of the 4 Disciplines of Execution is to move the adoption curve right and tight, toward achieving a breakthrough.

The 4 Disciplines work because they are based on principles, not practices. Practices are situational, subjective, and always evolving. Principles are timeless and self-evident, and they apply everywhere. They are natural laws, like gravity. Whether you understand them or even agree with them doesn’t matter – they still apply.

đź’ˇDiscipline 1: Focus on the Wildly Important

This is based on the principle of focus.

It’s difficult and resource-intensive to be great at everything – in fact, it’s not necessary or even healthy. Instead, companies with highly effective operating models have decided to excel at only those few capabilities essential to realizing the strategy.

Leaders should be open to new ideas and should create an open forum in which they listen and explore alternatives, but they may also need to step in at the right moment to bring those discussions to a decision. The leader must be ready to play both roles – facilitating the discussion, but also ready to advocate a position.

For leaders of a frontline team:

The greatest challenge in execution is not in developing the plan. It’s in changing the behavior of the frontline teams that must execute it.

Simple guidelines that will help focus on just one WIG:

  • Think from the viewpoint of the team first
    • No one individual on your team should focus on more than one WIG. For example, if you lead a marketing team that is comprised of an advertising team, a social media team, and a lead generation team, then each of those teams may have its own unique WIG. This might seem like three WIGs, but from the perspective of the team, no individual focuses on more than one.
  • Don’t choose a WIG that encompasses your entire workload
  • This might sound like you’ve narrowed your focus (“See, folks, we have only one WIG: “Grow revenue”), but you haven’t. And everyone knows it. Separate your WIG from your normal results. Instead of “Grow revenue”, apply 4DX to a more specific portion of that overall outcome, such as “Grow revenue from midsize manufacturing companies in the southeastern region.”

The leaders’ challenge: there will always be more good ideas than there is the capacity to execute.

Identifying your team’s wildly important goal:
A WIG is a goal that can make all the difference. Because it’s your strategic tipping point, you’re going to commit to applying a disproportionate amount of energy to it – the 20 percent that is not used up in the whirlwind. But how do you decide which of many possible goals should be your WIG?
As the leader of a frontline team, trying to define a Team WIG, you will be in one of two common situations:
1. You have goal-setting autonomy: this can occur when your team is actually the entire company, as with most small businesses. It can also occur when the leadership above you is not requiring new or significantly different results beyond your day-to-day. In this situation, you have the freedom to choose Team WIG without high consideration for the goals of other teams.
2. You do not have goal-setting autonomy: this can occur when your team is part of a larger integrated strategy. In this situation, your Team WIG may need to fit precisely within a larger plan for achieving a strategic result.

When you have goal-setting autonomy, instead of asking, “What’s most important for our team?” begin by asking “If every other aspect of our team’s performance remained at its current level, what is the one area where significant improvement would have the greatest impact?” This question changes the way you think and lets you clearly identify the focus that would make all the difference.

When you don’t have goal-setting autonomy, it’s more effective to ask, “What improved outcome would represent our team’s greatest contribution to the overall strategy?” We recognize that if you are a leader of a frontline team with less autonomy, you may have many goals mandated from above.

For leaders of leaders:

The first trap for leaders of leaders is the counterintuitive practice of saying no to good ideas. Saying no to good ideas, in order to say a focused yes to great ideas, is the key to extraordinary results.

The second trap for leaders of leaders is trying to turn everything in the whirlwind into a WIG. This is an approach that is appealing because it allows you to package your entire whirlwind into a single all-encompassing goal. While it appears that you’ve narrowed your focus, the reality is that you’ve simply given your whirlwind a new name.
Unless you can achieve your goal with a stroke of the pen, success is going to require the people in your organization to change their behavior, and they simply cannot change that many behaviors at once, no matter how badly you want them to. Trying to significantly improve every measure in the whirlwind will consume all of your time and leave you with very little to show for it.

The third trap for leaders of leaders is trying to create a WIG by identifying the most important objective. The leader should not be asking “What is most important?” but “Where do we most want to create a breakthrough?”

Approach A. Create a single primary WIG
In this approach, teams within the organization choose a Team WIG that aligns with the Primary WIG. It could look like either of the examples below. In the first example, the Team WIG aligns directly to the Primary WIG; and in the second example, there are intermediate “sub-WIGs”(between the Primary WIG and the team, often referred to as “Battle WIGs”) to which the Team WIGs are aligned.
There are two clear advantages to this approach. First, the energy of the organization is focused on a single Primary WIG, enabling you to produce the greatest possible result. Second, every member of the organization gets to contribute and participate in the same overall achievement. Whenever your frontline teams can have a meaningful impact on the Primary WIG, this approach is powerful. But if the frontline teams cannot find a way to directly or indirectly contribute to the Primary WIG, the forced alignment of their Team WIG can feel artificial and kills engagement.

Approach B. Create a small set of critical Primary WIGs.
Even though these Primary WIGs are operationally unrelated, their combined accomplishment can lead to the achievement of your strategic objective. In this approach, the frontline teams within the organization align their Team WIG to the one Primary WIG where they can make the greatest contribution and impact. Even though each team still has only one Team WIG, the organization can now divide its “breakthrough currency” between multiple objectives that are needed to fulfill the strategy.

Transform WIG – requires the organization to do something completely new.
Perform WIG – the effort is directed toward performing better on existing metrics.
The Transform and Perform WIGs and other variations of this structure are common, particularly in larger-scale strategies where results are achievable only through significant sustained investment.

Approach C. Leaders of frontline teams are given autonomy to choose their own Team WIG.
In this approach, the leader of leaders relies on the judgment of the leaders of frontline teams to decide what the WIG for their own team should be. This is particularly effective in organizations where the frontline teams have high operational autonomy and little or no interdependence with other teams for combined results. Small-box retail, grocery, and services operations are good examples. This approach is used in multiunit and franchised organizations.

For example, the CEO said “I want these four strategic objectives to guide and direct the teams at the front line as they choose their Team WIG. It’s their choice to make, so long as it aligns to one of our four strategies.” So each team now had an essential responsibility: they needed to choose a Team WIG that would not only align to one of the four strategies but also represent their greatest possible contribution to the company’s success. With more than four hundred teams involved, driving this selection from the bottom up gave them two distinct advantages:

  • it ensured that the choice of a Team WIG was made close to the front line
  • it generated a strong sense of ownership by letting the teams make the choice

There are 4 primary rules for applying Discipline 1 as a leader of leaders:

  1. No individual focuses on more than one WIG at a time
    • this rule acts as a governor on an engine
  2. The battles you choose must win the war
    • Whether it’s a military conflict or the war on hunger, cancer, or poverty, there’s a relationship between battles and wars. The only reason you fight a battle is to win the war. The sole purpose of Team WIGs is to drive the achievement of the Primary WIG. It isn’t’ enough that the Team WIGs just support or align with the Primary WIG. The achievement of the Team WIG must ensure the success of the Primary WIG.
  3. Leaders of leaders can veto, but not dictate
    • The highest levels of execution are never reached when the strategy is devised solely by the top leaders of the organization and simply headed down to the leaders and teams below. Without the involvement of all, you cannot generate the high levels of commitment execution requires. While senior leaders will undoubtedly determine the Primary WIG, they must allow the leaders of frontline teams to have a significant role in defining the WIG for their own team.
    • Implementing Discipline 1 from a Primary WIG down to Team WIGs enables an organization to quickly turn a broad strategy into clearly defined targets at every level. It is not solely a top-down process, but neither is it exclusively bottom-up. It combines the best of both. The senior leader’s choice of Primary WIG(top-down) brings clarity, and the frontline leader’s choice of a Team WIG(bottom-up) brings engagement. In the process, the entire organization mobilizes around the focus that matters most and takes ownership for driving the result.
  4. All WIGs must have a finish line in the form of From X to Y by When
    • Remember that a WIG is not a strategy. A WIG is a tactical goal with a limited time frame. The length of a project-based WIG, such as “Complete the new website within budget by July 1” will usually correspond with the time frame of the project itself. Just remember that a WIG should be within a time frame that balances the need to create a compelling vision with the need to create an achievable goal.

The 4 traps to avoid when creating WIGs

  1. Creating too many Primary WIGs
    • The temptation to create too many WIGs is likely the most seductive of them all. It’s also the most destructive.
  2. Choosing a Primary WIG that is too broad
    • This is a less obvious trap than the one above, but it’s almost as common
    • Sometimes described as “trying to hit a bullet with a bullet” – not impossible, but incredibly unlikely
  3. Creating a Primary WIG that is aspirational, but not measurable
  4. Creating WIGs that are not aligned with the mission and vision of the organization

đź’ˇDiscipline 2: Act on the Lead Measures

This is based on the principle of leverage.

Whatever strategy you’re pursuing, your progress, and your success will be based on two kinds of measures: lag and lead.

Lag measures are the tracking measures of the Wildly Important Goal, or any other measurement you cannot significantly influence individually. These are usually the ones you spend most of your time agonizing over. Revenue, profit, market share, product quality, and customer satisfaction are all lag measures, meaning that when you receive them, the performance that drove them is already in the past. That’s why you’re agonizing – by the time you get a lag measure, you can’t fix it. It’s history.

Lead measures are quite different in that they are the measures of the most impactful actions (or behaviors) your team must do to reach the goal. In essence, the lead measures are the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures, whether those behaviors are as simple as offering a sample to every customer in the bakery or as complex as adhering to standards in jet-engine design.

A good lead measure has two basic characteristics. It’s predictive of achieving the goal, and it can be influenced by the team members. To understand these two characteristics, consider the simple goal of losing weight. While the lag measure is pounds you lost, two lead measures might be a specific limit on calories per day and a specific number of hours of exercise per week. These lead measures are predictive because by adhering to them, you can predict what the bathroom scale (the lag measure) will tell you next week. They are influenceable because both of these new behaviors are within your control.

This second discipline refers to applying disproportionate energy to the few actions (or behaviors) that will have the greatest impact on achieving the Wildly Important Goal. We call these actions “lead measures” because they are the measurable drivers that actually lead to a WIG achievement.

It’s important to note here that Lead measures exist at the level of the frontline team and are designed to move the Team WIG (lag measure). Leader of leaders may choose to use a particular metric, the Execution Performance Score (XPS), as a lead measure, but otherwise do not have lead measures at their level.

Lag versus Lead measures

A lag measure is the measurement of a result you are trying to achieve. We call them lag measures because by the time you get the result, the performance that drove it is in the past; the numbers are always lagging. In a Wildly Important Goal, the formula From X to Y by When defines your lag measure. Remember that your whirlwind is full of lag measures – quality, profitability, and customer satisfaction (to name just a few) – that will always be historical by the time you get them.

Lead measures are different; they foretell the result. Lead measures must always have two primary characteristics. First, a lead measure is predictive, meaning that if the lead measure changes, you can predict that the lag measure will also change. Second, a lead measure is influenceable; it can be directly influenced by the team. That is, the team can make a lead measure happen without significant dependence on another team.

Let’s explore the two characteristics of a good lead measure further by first assuming you have a WIG to “Increase corn production from 200 tons to 300 tons by September 1.” The X to Y of corn tonnage is your lag measure. You know that rainfall is an important factor in corn production, so rainfall can be predictive of the corn harvest. But is it a good lead measure? No, because you can’t influence the weather to produce the right amount of rain. Rainfall is predictive, but it isn’t influenceable. Rainfall fails the test because both characteristics are equally important.

Lead measures can be counterintuitive

But there’s one problem with lead measures. Where do leaders normally fixate – on lead measures or lag measures? That’s right. As a leader, you’ve likely spent your entire career focusing on lag measures, even though you can’t directly affect them. And you’re not alone. Think about your last meeting with the other leaders in your organization. What were you discussing, analyzing, planning, and agonizing about? Lag measures – including, usually, your inability to move them.

First, lag measures are the measures of success; they are the results you have to achieve. Second, data on lag measures is almost always much easier to obtain than data on lead measures. It’s easy to step on a scale and know exactly how much you weigh, but how easy is it to find out how many calories you’ve eaten today or how many you’ve burned? That data is often hard to get at, and it can take real discipline to continue getting at it.

There’s a huge difference between merely understanding the importance of diet and exercise and measuring how many calories you’ve eaten and how many you’ve burned. Everyone knows you should diet and exercise, but the people who measure how many calories they’ve eaten and how many they’ve burned each day are the ones actually losing weight!

“If luck is playing a significant role in your career, then you’re fixating on lag measures.”

The real impact and beauty of good lead measures in Discipline 2 are that they truly connect the team to WIG achievement.

đź’ˇDiscipline 3: Keep a Compelling Scorecard

This is based on the principle of engagement.

People pay differently when they’re keeping score. If you doubt this, what any group of teenagers playing a game and see how the level of play changes the minute scorekeeping begins. However, the truth of this statement is more clearly revealed by a change in emphasis: People play differently when they are keeping score. It’s not about the leader keeping score for them.

The highest level of performance always comes from people who are emotionally engaged, and the highest level of engagement comes from knowing the score – that is if people know whether they are winning or losing. It’s that simple.

Characteristics of a compelling players’ scoreboard

  1. Is it simple?
    • Think about the scoreboard in a sporting event. Usually, only a few distinct pieces of data are displayed.
  2. Can I see it easily?
    • It has to be visible to the team. The scoreboard at a football game is huge and the numbers are gigantic so everyone can tell at a glance who’s winning.
  3. Does it show lead and lag measures?
    • It should show both the lead and lag measures. This really helps a scoreboard come to life. The lead measure is what the team can affect. The lag measure is the result they want. The team needs to see both, or they will quickly lose interest. They can see what they are doing (the lead) and what they are getting (the lag).
  4. Can I tell at a glance if I’m winning?
    • The scoreboard has to tell you immediately if you are winning or losing. If the team can’t quickly determine if they are winning or losing by looking at the scoreboard, then it’s not a game, it’s just data.

Team engagement

People are most satisfied with their jobs (and therefore most motivated) when those jobs give them the opportunity to experience achievement.

The power of progress is fundamental to human nature, but few managers understand it or know how to leverage progress to boost motivation.

A winning team doesn’t need artificial morale-boosting. All the psyching up and rah-rah exercises companies do to raise morale – solving a puzzle, staging scavenger hunts, or holding a talent show – aren’t nearly as effective in engaging people like the satisfaction that comes from executing with excellence a goal that matters.

đź’ˇ Discipline 4: Create a Cadence of Accountability

This is based on the principle of accountability.

Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.

Many leaders define execution simply as the ability to set a goal and achieve it. What’s difficult – and rare – is the ability to achieve a critical goal while living in the midst of a raging whirlwind. And it is even more difficult when achieving the goal requires changing the behaviors of a lot of people.

“As a leader, you are ultimately responsible for your team’s results. Unfortunately, when leaders fail to address performance and behavioral issues, this undermines the entire team, leading to lower quality and weak organizational culture. It sets a dangerous precedent as people start to learn that there are no real consequences for poor behavior or performance. Without accountability, engagement wanes, and resentment builds in members of the team who are negatively impacted. Leaders lose their credibility, and top performers leave.”

The WIG Session

Is a meeting, which lasts no longer than twenty to thirty minutes, has a set agenda, and goes quickly, establishing your weekly rhythm of accountability for driving progress toward the WIG.

Wig Sessions might vary in content, but the agenda is always the same. Here’s the three-part agenda for a WIG Session, along with the language you should be hearing in the session:

  1. Account.
    • Report on last week’s commitments
  2. Review the scoreboard.
    • Learn from successes and failures.
  3. Plan.
    • Clear the path and make new commitments.

Keeping weekly commitments drives the lead measures, and the lead measures drive the achievement of the WIG.

WIG Sessions and engagement

People who are doing the one thing they always wanted to do have the lowest scores in engagement. How can people who have made a career doing what they love report low engagement?
In his book The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, Patrick Lencioni describes brilliantly three reasons individuals disengage from work:

  1. Anonymity: they feel their leaders don’t know or care what they are doing
  2. Irrelevance: they don’t understand how their job makes a difference
  3. Immeasurement: they cannot measure or assess for themselves the contribution they are making

Creating an innovative culture

Structure and creativity together produce engagement, as an eminent psychiatrist, Dr. Edward Hallowell has discovered. “The most motivating situations,” he says, are those that are “highly structured and full of novelty and stimulation.”

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