Skip to content
James CosmanJan 25, 2017 11:05:00 PM7 min read

What would you do here?: Execution is Everything

Norman Augustine, a former Chairman and CEO of Lockhead Martin, once said “A bad idea executed to perfection is still a bad idea.”Another writer pointed out that the inverse is also true: A good idea poorly executed is useless. I have had the opportunity to observe and learn from very effective and very ineffective leaders and have come to the conclusion that a primary difference between the two is their ability to execute – to actually get something done. Poor managers spend their careers planning and presenting. Good managers spend their careers executing and assessing.

Certainly, good planning and decision-making processes are extremely important to valuable business results, but too often planning hijacks the whole process.  There are several concepts from the consulting world which might better explain this point:

  • Thin-Slicing. “Thin-slicing” is an idea in psychology first made popular in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. This concept describes the innate ability for individuals to make surprisingly accurate observations about current and future events with only a very small amount of observational data.  Among the many studies supporting this idea, Gladwell points to a marital expert named John Gottman who has found that he can predict if a couple will be married in 15 years with 95% accuracy after meeting with them only an hour; however, if he meets with them for 2 hours, his accuracy drops to 90%.  In other words, sometimes your gut/initial reaction might give you a better answer to your problem than your late night epiphany after a 7 day retreat into the wilderness.
  • Paralysis by Analysis. Not only can over-analysis cause managers to make the “less right” decision, it can also cause them to have trouble making any decision at all. My experience is that paralysis by analysis is one of the most common leadership pitfalls.  In business school, we are taught all sorts of advanced analytical methods guaranteed to make us look smarter than our peers. If we don’t know the answer to a problem, maybe a nice regression model will do the trick, or we can hire more analysts with MBAs to tell us where the most efficient place to put our printers is. Certainly, there are business problems which lend themselves to deep analysis, but not as many of them as we might think. Sometimes, good leaders should just step back and use good, old fashioned common sense.
  • Boiling the Ocean. This concept is related to paralysis by analysis.  Boiling the ocean refers to the tendency of teams to explore, in detail, every possible option when making a decision.  “No rock will go unturned on my watch!” This tendency assumes that there is some perfect solution to every problem you might face, if only we look hard enough. The problem with this approach and paralysis by analysis is that they tend to bog down the decision-making process. In the business world, where time really does mean money, failure to act quickly can result in tangible business losses. Many times, the net benefits of making a good decision quickly greatly outweigh the net benefits of making the perfect decision slowly.

If you are honest with yourself, you will see many areas across your workplace where a bogged down decision making process is affecting your ability to execute; however, here are several signs that might be helpful:

Signs Your Team is not Executing

1. Endless meetings with no valuable outcome.

We’ve all been there. You come into work on Monday and your calendar is already filled with 10 hours of regular meetings. You have your Daily Team Update Meeting, your Weekly Managers Meeting, your meeting called by some acronym the meaning of which has long since been forgotten.  You see Tom walking down the hall and you ask him what he is doing.  “I’m going to my regular ‘SRNCP meeting’,” he answers. Secretly you ask yourself, “What is that?” He is probably asking himself the same thing.

Regular meetings can be an essential part of business, but too often we have these meetings just because we’ve always had these meetings and nobody stops to think what their true value is.  Are they helping us “get something done”, or are they really just filling up everyone’s schedule with non-value added activities?

2. Excessive idea pinball.

“Excessive idea pinball” can derail even valuable meetings. Excessive idea pinball describes the tendency of teams to bounce around ideas endlessly until there is no clear direction, the meeting ends, and repeat. Popular business culture is making the dysfunctional practice worse. We are told that all decisions should be made democratically, taking into account every team member’s perspective. Before you know it, the team has discussed 35 ways to manage personal food in the fridge and no decision has been made. Then in next week’s meeting, the team leader decides that now the company should outsource their fridge management problem, which spurns more endless idea pinball.

Even IDEO, the product development company famous for its flat and democratic team structures, has learned that democratic decision-making has its limits. If an IDEO team cannot come to a consensus on a product concept in a reasonable amount time, a senior team leader will quickly establish a group hierarchy and force a design decision.

3. No tools.

I started my career in business process consulting. I was always frustrated with the fact that we could re-design a process to perfection, document it in beautiful process maps, and do training after training with employees, and in a month nothing would change. After all, a process map is only a piece of paper; a marketing plan is only a collection of better formatted pieces of paper; and a PowerPoint presentation is only bits of 0s and 1s.

After a decision is made, an effective leader needs the tools to execute change. In this day and age, these tools usually involve finding the right technology to manage the process; however, the tools can also be people, assets, and infrastructure.

4. No results.

This one seems like a no-brainer, but maybe not as much as you think.  The best sign that a team is ineffective is that its efforts produce little or no value. Too often, leaders fail to step back and assess (NOT ANALYZE!) if their team actually accomplished anything of value. It is easy in this day and age to get distracted by the attractive presentations, slick speeches, smart-sounding analytics, and degrees of our co-workers and slide past the fact that none of this actually helps the company accomplish anything. Don’t forget to ask: “Did we actually create value?”

They say “the first step in recovery is realizing you have a problem.” Now, that we have some ideas of what to look for, how can a leader make him/herself a more effective leader?:

  1. Refuse to have valueless meetings: If you cannot answer the question “How does this meeting move us towards our goal?”, then do your team a favor and cancel that meeting. Trust me, they will love you for it.  If you deem a meeting valuable, there is plenty of literature on how to enhance the effectiveness of your meetings.
  2. Prioritize problems: Some managers will spend an equal amount of time deciding which coffee service is best for their office as they do trying to figure out new sources of revenue so they can make payroll that month.  Do not overthink that which is of little importance.
  3. Be wary of democratic management styles. Political scientists all agree that democracy is the most inefficient form of government; however, for a system that values freedom, its inefficiency is what makes it great. In contrast, business systems value efficiency. Your whole office does not need to aid in the decision to launch a new product – only those with knowledge and experience in product marketing strategy.
  4. Hire talented people and trust them. Invest in talent who can execute effectively and then trust them to do so. Micro-management often pushes teams into endless cycles of paralysis by analysis and boiling the ocean.
  5. Invest in tools. Leaders shouldn’t take the time to solve a problem if they cannot invest in tools to execute.
  6. Do not fear the wrong decision. Making no decision is also making a decision. The leaders I have most respected in my life were those who were willing to make a decision and accept responsibility if it was wrong. It was these people who continued to advance in their careers while everybody else shuffled around looking for somebody to make a decision for them.
  7. Assess. Always, always assess if your team, meetings, and personal actions are actually “getting something done.”

In conclusion, “There is no try – only do or do not do.” If you can name who spoke these words, you are more than halfway on your way to being a highly effective leader.