The 4 Disciplines of Execution: A book review by Bob Morris

The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals
Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling
Free Press/A Division of Simon & Schuster (2012)

“Vision without execution is hallucination.” Thomas Edison

For whatever reasons, many decision-makers are victims of what Jeff Pfeffer and Bob Sutton characterize as the “Knowing-Doing Gap.” That is perhaps what Edison had in mind when expressing what serves as this review’s title. Pfeffer and Sutton also have much of value to say about the “Doing-Knowing Gap” (i.e. Aim, Fire, Ready) and to the great credit of the co-authors of this book, the material they provide will enable almost anyone to avoid or escape from either trap.

Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling introduce and then rigorously examine what they characterize as “four disciplines of execution” (4DX): Focus on the “wildly important” rather than on what is urgent (advice Steve Covey offered decades ago), Act on the “lead measures” (i.e. progress of what is done) rather than “lag measures” (i.e. results of what has been done), Keep a “compelling” scoreboard (i.e. one that simply cannot be ignored), and create a “cadence” of accountability (i.e. a cycle and rhythm of frequent accounting in coordination with what I think Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”). Adopting, indeed embracing these four disciplines requires a total commitment. The challenge to change agents is substantial. As Jim Stuart observes, “To achieve a goal you have never achieved before, [especially a `wildly important goal,’] you must start doing things you have never done before.”

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original expectations and, more often than not, the resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” However, it should be added, many of the wounds that change agents receive are self-inflicted. They over-sell and under-explain why the changes are not only important but imperative. They do little (if anything) to recruit buy-in. Change initiatives are imposed from above (i.e. the C-suite) rather than introduced at the shop floor level where momentum — and buy-in — can be increased organically rather than imperially.

McChesney, Covey, and Huling introduce 4DX in Section 1, explain how to install it with a team in Section 2, and then explain how to expand installation throughout the given enterprise in Section 3. I commend them on identifying the “what” of achieving “wildly important goals.” (Jim Collins would call them BHAGs, or Big Hairy Audacious Goals, but BHAGs tend to be somewhat more general than WIGs.) However, they devote the bulk of their time and energy to explaining HOW to achieve strategic objectives that include these:

o  Assemble a project team and its leader (with full support of C-level executives) and charge them with

o  Selecting the most important goals
o  Formulating metrics for lead and lag measurements
o  Formulating a comprehensive and cohesive “game plan,” one that includes benchmarks and deadlines
o  Devising a multi-dimensional communications program
o  Establishing and then sustaining transparency re goals, strategies, metrics, etc.
o  Sharing weekly, monthly, and quarterly updates

Throughout their lively and eloquent narrative, McChesney, Covey, and Huling focus on real people in real-world situations, who are struggling with real questions to answer and real (sometimes daunting) problems to solve. Readers will also appreciate the provision of supplementary resources that include “4DX Frequently Asked Questions,” “Bring It Home” observations and recommendations, and a remarkably candid response to “So, Now What?”

For some C-level executives, this may well prove to be one of the most valuable business books they will ever read. But I also highly recommend it to those  who aspires to reach that level and I have two specific reasons for that recommendation: It will help them to prepare themselves for expanded duties, responsibilities, and (yes) head-snapping challenges; but meanwhile, it will prepare them to add much greater value to the support they provide to the C-level executives in their organization now.

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