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The Real Problem with Execution

posted May 22, 2012 comment (1)

By Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling

B. J. Walker was facing the greatest challenge of her career. When she was the newly appointed Commissioner of the Department of Human Services for the U.S. State of Georgia in 2004, she could see that her 20,000 employees were completely demoralized. The department had burned through six commissioners in five years and was under constant media scrutiny, due to the number of deaths and accidents involving children in the state’s care. For months, her employees had operated under constant fear of making a mistake, which only made their poor productivity worse and led to some of the largest backlogs in the country. B. J. Walker needed a way to bring focus and direction to her team, and she knew that the clock was ticking.

Less than 18 months later, B. J. and her team had reduced repeat cases of child maltreatment by a stunning 60 percent.

One of the hotels near Marriott International’s headquarters, the Bethesda Marriott, wanted to improve performance measures, an effort magnified by being so close to the company’s leadership. General Manager Brian Hilger, his team, and the hotel’s owners worked together on a $20 million renovation that included remodeled rooms, an impressive lobby, and a new restaurant—improvements critical to higher guest scores. And the results were amazing—the hotel looked fantastic. But the guest scores were still not at desired levels…?yet.The second part of the equation would involve how associates interacted with guests and executed at the hotel—a strategy dependent on new behaviors.

After one year, Brian and his team proudly celebrated earning the highest Guest Satisfaction Scores in the 30-year history of the hotel. As Brian said, “I used to dread the arrival of our new Guest Satisfaction Scores every Friday. Now, I’m excited to get up on Friday mornings.”

These stories from the State of Georgia and Marriott sound very different from each other, but they aren’t. For each of these leaders, the challenge was essentially the same. So was the solution.

Their common challenge? Executing a strategy that required a significant change in human behavior—the behavior of many, or even all, of the people in the team or organization.

Their common solution? Deeply implanting The 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX).

All leaders struggle with this challenge even if they don’t realize it. If you’re leading people, right now you probably are trying to get them to do something different. Whether you lead a small work team or a whole company, a family, or a factory, no significant result is achievable unless people change their behavior. Yet, to be successful, you will need more than just their compliance; you will need their commitment. As every leader knows, getting the commitment of hearts and minds, the kind of commitment that will endure in the midst of the daily grind, is not easy.

We completed more than 1,500 implementations of the 4 Disciplines before we were ready to write this book. Why? Because we wanted to test and refine the 4 Disciplines against hundreds of real-world challenges like the ones faced by B. J. Walker and Brian Hilger.

When you execute a strategy that requires a lasting change in the behavior of other people, you are facing one of the greatest leadership challenges you will ever meet. With the 4 Disciplines of Execution, you are not experimenting with an interesting theory; you are implementing a set of proven practices that meet that challenge successfully every time.

The Real Challenge

Whether you call it a strategy, a goal, or simply an improvement effort, 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 requires mainly a stroke of the pen; the second requires behavioral change.

Stroke-of-the-pen strategies are those you execute just by ordering or authorizing them to be done. Simply put, if you have the money and the authority, you can make them happen. It might be a major capital investment, a change in the compensation system, a realignment of roles and responsibilities, adding staff, or a new advertising campaign. While executing these strategies may require planning, consensus, guts, brains, and money, you know that in the end it is going to happen.

Behavioral-change strategies are very different from stroke-of-the-pen strategies. You can’t just order them to happen, because executing them requires getting people—often a lot of people—to do something different. And if you’ve ever tried to get other people to change their ways, you know how tough it is. Changing yourself is hard enough.

For example, you may have to get all of your store employees to greet every customer who enters the store within 30 seconds, or get your entire sales force to begin using the new CRM system, or get your product development team to collaborate with the marketing team. If you’re B. J. Walker, you may be changing routines that have been entrenched for decades. This stuff is hard!

It’s also not uncommon to find many stroke-of-the-pen strategies that, once approved, evolve into those that require significant behavioral change.

Our colleague, Jim Stuart, summarized this challenge as follows: “To achieve a goal you have never achieved before, you must start doing things you have never done before.” It could be a new sales approach, an effort to improve patient satisfaction, better project management discipline, or adherence to a new manufacturing process. If it requires people to do something different, you are driving a behavioral-change strategy, and it’s not going to be easy.

Have you ever found yourself on the way to work muttering something like, “For the love of heaven, can’t we just do this one thing?”

If so, then you remember how it felt when the inability to get people to change was the one thing standing between you and the results you wanted. And you’re not alone.

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

Despite the significance of this problem, leaders seldom recognize it. You don’t hear leaders saying, “I wish I were better at driving strategies that require people to do things differently.” What you are more likely to hear is a leader saying, “I wish I didn’t have Tom, Paul, and Sue to deal with!”

It’s natural for a leader to assume the people are the problem. After all, they are the ones not doing what we need to have done. But you would be wrong. The people are not the problem!

W. Edwards Deming, the father of the quality movement, taught that any time the majority of the people behave a particular way the majority of the time, the people are not the problem. The problem is inherent in the system. As a leader, you own responsibility for the system. Although a particular person can be a big problem, if you find yourself blaming the people, you should look again.

When we began to study this challenge several years ago, we first wanted to understand the root causes of weak execution. We commissioned an international survey of working people and examined hundreds of businesses and government agencies. During the early stages of our research we found problems everywhere we looked.

One prime suspect behind execution breakdown was clarity of the objective: People simply didn’t understand the goal they were supposed to execute. In fact, in our initial surveys we learned that only one employee in seven could name even one of their organization’s most important goals. That’s right—15 percent could not name even one of the top three goals their leaders had identified. The other 85 percent named what they thoughtwas the goal, but it often didn’t remotely resemble what their leaders had said. The further from the top of the organization, the lower the clarity. And that was just the beginning of the problems we uncovered.

Lack of commitment to the goal was another problem. Even those people who knew the goal lacked commitment to achieving it. Only 51 percent could say that they were passionate about the team’s goal, leaving almost half the team simply going through the motions.

Accountability was also an issue. A staggering 81 percent of the people surveyed said they were not held accountable for regular progress on the organization’s goals. And the goals were not translated into specific actions—87 percent had no clear idea what they should be doing to achieve the goal. No wonder execution is so inconsistent.

In short, people weren’t sure what the goal was, weren’t committed to it, didn’t know what to do about it specifically, and weren’t being held accountable for it.

These were only the most obvious explanations as to why execution breaks down. On a more subtle level, there were problems with lack of trust, misaligned compensation systems, poor development processes, and poor decision-making.

Our first instinct was to say “Fix everything! Fix it all, and then you’ll be able to execute your strategy.” It was like advising them to boil the ocean.

As we dug in further, we began to put our finger on a far more fundamental cause of execution breakdown. Certainly all of the problems we just cited—the lack of clarity, commitment, collaboration, and accountability—exacerbate the difficulty of strategy execution. But, in reality, they initially distracted us from seeing the deeper problem. You may have heard the expression, “Fish discover water last.” That expression sums up our discovery very well. Like a fish discovering the water it’s been swimming in the whole time, we finally realized that the fundamental problem with execution had always been right in front of us. We hadn’t seen it because it was everywhere, hiding in plain sight.

The Whirlwind

The real enemy of execution is your day job! We call it the whirlwind. It’s the massive amount of energy that’s necessary just to keep your operation going on a day-to-day basis; and, ironically, it’s also the thing that makes it so hard to execute anything new. The whirlwind robs from you the focus required to move your team forward.

Leaders seldom differentiate between the whirlwind and strategic goals because both are necessary to the survival of the organization. However, they are clearly different, and more important, they compete relentlessly for time, resources, energy, and attention. We don’t have to tell you which usually will win this fight.

The whirlwind is urgent and it acts on you and everyone working for you every minute of every day. The goals you’ve set for moving forward are important, but when urgency and importance clash, urgency will win every time. Once you become aware of this struggle, you will see it playing out everywhere, in any team that is trying to execute anything new.

Excerpt from “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling, Copyright © 2012 by FranklinCovey Co. Reprinted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc. For more information, visit

Chris McChesney is the Global Practice Leader of Execution for FranklinCovey and one of the primary developers of the 4 Disciplines of Execution. For more than a decade, he has led FranklinCovey’s ongoing design and development of these principles. For more information, visit

Sean Covey is Executive Vice President of Global Solutions and Partnerships for FranklinCovey and oversees FranklinCovey’s international operations in 141 countries around the globe. He also serves as the leader of FranklinCovey’s Education Practice, which is devoted to transforming education throughout the world through implementing principle-centered leadership. Covey organized and directed the original teams that conceived and created The 4 Disciplines of Execution. For more information, visit

Jim Huling is the Managing Consultant for FranklinCovey’s 4 Disciplines of Execution. In this role, he is responsible for the 4 Disciplines methodology, teaching methods, and the quality of delivery worldwide. Huling’s career spans more than three decades of corporate leadership, from Fortune 500 organizations to privately held companies. For more information on Jim, visit

Comment (1)
  • Scott, I really do aptpceiare you bringing this up, and I do think that there are some really important links between anthropology and journalism. But I get a little testy with this anthropology-journalism thing. There’s a sense out there that anthropology is (a) paralyzed by ambivalence about “going public”; (b) clueless about why jargon and shop-talk don’t lend themselves to a more public presence, or (c) disparaging of journalists for not being anthropological (i.e. theoretical) enough. Certainly you can find evidence of this, but I don’t think the field as a whole is in quite as much of a crisis of relevance as you think. I think a, b, and c are all somewhat true, but then again, your anthropological training is shining through. Anthropologists worry perhaps more than anyone about the wider impact of their work. Crucially, however, that work should not be limited to what comes out on the page (tenure committees notwithstanding).But I don’t want to discout writing. Written nthropological work is indeed very often theory-laden and full of footnotes and citations. These are symbolic of academic status, but they also serve a purpose. They stake out analytical territory and they allow us to see how new ideas build on old ones. They are tedious and annoying but somewhat necessary. To a degree. Some people are just bad writers. Jargon and thick academic syntax make us hard to read sometimes, but that difficulty is not unique to anthropology. Think of all the misunderstanding between climate scientists, journalists, politicians, and “the public” today. Sure, climate science is relevant, but how should it become so? By being more lay-accessible or more “scientfically rigorous”? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.Methodologically, anthropology is as diverse a discipline as you’re likely to find, since chromatography, genetic sequencing, quantitative surveys, semistructured interviews, and directed observation can all be part of the toolkit. It would be awfully hard to “program” a student to master all of these, and one of the things that makes the discipline appealing to me (and perhaps to journalists) is the diversity and creativity with which anthropologists approach their interests. Our training, if frustrating at the outset for its open-endedness, is purposely practice-based. In no other discipline are students so self-guiding in the execution of their research and the selection of their topics. Again, this is a huge strength, as it promotes curiosity rather than rote repetition. Deweyan learning alive and well, to the extent that it can be in a tower made of elephant tusks. The training that we do get in theory is what allows us to report back to one another with some coherence.But as for relevance, the most important audiences we have are usually not those in the USA or Europe (our colleagues, mostly) who read journals. Indeed, many of our most important audience members cannot read or, if they can, afford a daily newspaper. We have another “audience” whose interest precedes the written product. They are those with whom we work. From laboratories to women’s groups in impoverished cities, it is very difficult to find an anthropological “site” these days that wasn’t negotiated in terms of relevance to the “natives” before the tape recorder rolled or pen touched paper. Anthropologists I know spend as much time building fences, clearing lots, going to weddings and funerals, and facilitating communication between groups as they do collecting “relevant” data. Anthropologists good ones anyway can be at their best when they act, as one of my professors put it, as “professional interferers.” Relevance, in this sense, is a prerequisite for publication.

    posted at 6:51 pm - July 08, 2012 by Sin

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