A Plan without Execution is a Novel: Five Principals to Begin Action

What is a plan? Simply a fictional story about a possible future. Execution is the action required to create a new reality. Every year around January first lots of people plan to change their lives. Some actually achieve their desired result while most start strong, hit a roadblock and quit. Successful execution requires a workable, organized plan; a clear vision with supporting goals; understanding of key indicators and how to measure them; leaders trained at every level to execute; and relentless, persistent action.

The difference between a masterpiece and blank canvas is execution by the artist. The worse painter will sell more than the one with talent who creates nothing. Execution is the difference.
-Photo by form PxHere

The first step in the planning process requires a leader to figure out where s/he is and where s/he wants to be. If they are different, then the leader develops a plan to create change. Identifying the difference between what is and what you want it to be is the vision. Leaders need to describe their vision in a compelling, detailed way, so it comes to life for the leader and others. When you create a vision for the future that is so clear it attracts people that want to join the journey.

In order to reach your vision, you need to develop goals as part of your plan. Work with your team to develop written SMART goals. State what you want to achieve, include basic directions to complete the goal, and provide measures of success in performance and effectiveness. Effectiveness is measured best by how close your achievement matches your desired end state. See this blog for more on setting goals.

In January 1994, William Bratton was appointed Police Commissioner of New York City. At the time, crime was out of control. Bratton adopted the broken windows philosophy of James Wilson and George Kelly which said that if there is a broken window in a building, others will break more windows and the disorder of that building spreads to other nearby buildings. The best way to fight crime was to fix disorder. Take care of the small things and they never become big things. Bratton’s vision for NYC’s future and was to make sure every police employee focused on little disorders.

Planning and organizing may occur simultaneously. These parallel activities ensure support for your plan. In your planning, you learn what processes to complete and how long it takes to complete them. In organizing you identify the best ways to complete tasks and formalize those processes.

Every part of execution is linked to the other parts. As a result, if you cannot ignore weak links that will result in failure. A leader cannot be strong in all areas so s/he needs to rely on the strengths of others to create a strong chain of executed tasks.
-Photo by form PxHere edited by the author.

The next step links your planning and organizing with operational execution. When you connect the right people with the right process you create an execution framework. The framework supports the tasks required to meet goals and arrive at your desired end-state. The best way to match people to process is hiring the right people in the first place.

If you hire people with some basic work skills, values aligned with the organization, and a track record of achieving results you will consistently execute better. Too often organizations seek people with the skills necessary for the job to reduce training. It is easier to teach someone with aligned values and proven ability to do a task, than to try and force someone to adopt your organization’s principals and values even if they are highly skilled in the task.

I lead a small non-profit. Employees often work unsupervised due to the nature of the work. It is important the people working for me value trust, and balance working independently and as part of a team. There are requirements for data entry, writing, and general office work. I could hire someone who has office skills and hope to teach them how to be trusted to work as an independent team member, or I could hire someone who has demonstrated the ability to be trusted working as an independent team member and teach them how to answer the phone, file papers, and enter data. My organization’s filing system is unique. It looks like no other. I teach new people our filing system.

When driving a car, watching the road is important. However keeping track of what is behind you is also important. That is why cars have rear facing mirrors. Measuring systems serve as review mirrors. They let us look back to see what happened while keeping our eyes on the destination.

Think of performance data like navigating with your GPS. When you first start, it may not be oriented correctly. After you travel a short distance it provides feedback about your direction and route. In turn, you adjust if you find you heading the wrong way. Having measures of success in processes and effectiveness provide feedback so you know people are doing the right things, the right way, and moving closer to your goal.

In a recent conversation with a peer leader we discussed execution. She stated one of her goals for the coming year was to improve her execution because it was clunky. I replied that clunky execution is better than no execution. If you start something, even if it is not polished, you have a greater chance of accomplishing the goal than the leader who talks about great things but never moves forward.

Clunky execution is the result of lack of experience. It is better to learn how you to do something better than sitting in your office doing nothing perfectly! Your execution improves as you accomplish goals because accumulate data as you measure improving future decisions and course corrections. You cannot adjust your course from the starting line.

You have to start before you can make adjustments. It is unlikely the race will go as planned. You are sure to lose if you do not start so move forward and make adjustments along the way.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Action is at the heart of execution. After all your planning and organizing it is easy to wonder what you should do first. Think of your drive to work. Does it really matter whether you start the car right after inserting the keys in the ignition or buckle your seat belt? Probably not. You do have to unlock and open the door before you can make that choice. There are some actions that must be completed in order. The order of other actions matters little.

The US Army uses a process called Troop Leading Procedures to prioritize work. The first few steps parallel the steps discussed in planning and organizing. The next step is the most important for effective execution, Start Necessary Movement. The procedure does not specify what movement is necessary. The leader still needs to decide what to move first. Start moving something. As things start to move, you revise your plan and tell people about the revisions.

Military commanders issue to begin execution. They live by the maxim, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy. ” (Farlex). The enemy always has a vote. Your competition, vendors, customers, boards of directors, and employees all have votes. The military compensates for these changes by issuing a fragmentary order or FRAGO for short. Common practice is to issue a FRAGO daily. Depending on events they may be issued more or less frequently. Likewise, you need to evaluate the progress of your plan, adjust, and tell people about the adjustment.

Execution is the step that makes plans reality. Without executing plans, people and organizations fail to complete anything becoming stagnant and irrelevant. Execution is the discipline of action. Execution is movement. Execution is taking the first tentative step in any direction. After the first few steps, you can always adjust your course. You created a plan. You have organized your people and processes. Your organized plan is a fictional story without action. Make your story non fiction by initiating action, taking those first steps, moving forward, adjusting as you go. Execute!

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References

Bossidy, L. & Charan, R. (2002) Execution: The discipline of getting things done. Crown Business. New York, NY

Bratton, W. & Knobler, P. (1998) Turnaround. Random House. New York, NY.

Farlex. (2021) no plan survives contact with the enemy. The Free Dictionary. Retreived from https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/no+plan+survives+contact+with+the+enemy on 2/13/2021

Henry, V. (2003) The COMPSTAT paradigm: Management accountability in policing, business and the public sector. Looseleaf Law Publications. Flushing, NY

Shinseki, E. & Tilley, J. (2002) The Army noncommissioned officer guide, FM 7-22.7. HQ Department of the Army. Washington, D.C.

Willink, J. And Babin, L. (2015) Extreme ownership: how U.S. navy SEALs lead and win. St. Martin’s Press. New York, NY.

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(c) 2021 – Christopher St. Cyr

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