Activity Beats Execution

How to rethink your thinking to move the organization forward.

The execution fads in business – strategic planning, management by objective, total quality, just-in-time, and others before these – have had their day. Like most fashionable management concepts, execution really hasn’t made much difference. Mainly, it’s hung a new title on something we’ve known all along that we need to do: move our businesses forward.

The problem with execution thinking is its presumption about the way organizations advance. Execution thinkers see organizational advance as a sequence of independent assaults, each with its own target, plan to apply resources, metrics to track progress, enforcing mechanisms and independent end. All, collectively, supposed to achieve a specified performance goal in the mid-to-long-range future.

Sir Isaac Newton launched this style of thinking (based on the prior thinking of René Descartes). And it’s become pervasive. To make something big happen, we break it down into its component parts and concentrate on those. Find and fix the part that’s flawed, reassemble and we’ve solved the problem. Bad things often happen in these kinds of exercises in organizational versus scientific applications. The breakdown of components is misconceived; a few or a lot of the small initiatives fail; or all of the initiatives work, but they don’t deliver the overarching intention.

Learn and adjust

What makes truly vibrant businesses isn’t a series of independent, not well-coordinated thrusts toward a long-range and usually vague target. The winning path is more like our own lives: a continuous unfolding of experiences, learning and adjustments with plenty of improvisation along the way.
How can you mobilize this kind of holistic, organic unfolding in your business? It’s more about simply letting it happen than forcing anything to occur. Your role is simply to unlock the ingenuity of your organization.

You’ll need to swap out rigid schedules of tasks with rigid deadlines for more flexible milestones that lay out a path for everyone to learn how to make the whole organization operate more effectively and enthusiastically.

But there’s a preamble: It’s your compelling idea about what your company just might become. I usually frame this preamble as a certain achievement in a time period of nine to 20 months, depending on the nature and complexity of the goal. I lay out what looks to me like reasonable, interim milestones – the things we need to learn and adjust about how we operate to achieve the goal. Then I engage my team to vet the list and begin thinking about what it’s going to take to achieve each milestone. Finally, I provide constructive encouragement and oversight that transfers the findings and advances to the rest of the organization. Eventually, we commit to start down a path, anticipating that we’ll learn and adjust course along the way.

Here’s the contrast

Execution-Deadline thinking is anchored in the notion that we can identify meaningful, long-term objectives and define the specific actions that will achieve those objectives at the outset, before we even get started. It assumes we can act with military rigidity and ensure compliance. It has a starting point and an ending point.

Learning-Milestone thinking is continuous and acknowledges discovery along the way. It recognizes that the target and the means to attain it will change based on those new findings.

The Learning-Milestone approach allows for improvisational fluidity and invites everyone to revisit your company’s evolving targets and tells you how to hit them. It also inspires engagement and creativity and underpins a level of vibrancy that Execution-Deadline thinking never achieves.