Playing To Win

Getting It Done

What to do When it Doesn’t Get Done

Source: Cartoon Stock

I had a really interesting conversation with a client last week on the frustration of colleagues not getting things done. It is a tricky problem for every company — feels downright Sisyphean. So, I decided to write my 27thYear II Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) on Getting It Done: What to do When it Doesn’t Get Done. You can find the previous 79 PTW/PI here.

[The title, by the way, is an homage to Brendan Calder, who teaches one of the most popular second-year electives at my old school, Rotman School of Management, called Getting It Done. Brendan may or may not subscribe to the content of this piece — I look forward to his comments.]

The Concept of Execution

I am not a fan of the concept of ‘execution.’ I object to the false distinction between ‘formulation’ and ‘execution’ because I think both involve the same kind of choices, so why call some of the choices ‘execution? I have written about it, if you are interested in more.

However, I agree entirely that if thought doesn’t translate into action, that thought is close to worthless. I had that drummed into my head by my most impactful mentor, the late Chris Argyris. So, I want to explore the question of why it doesn’t get done and what can a leader do to avoid and/or remedy that unfortunate outcome?

In particular, I want to explore it in the case in which the superior has made a set of strategic choices that an objective group of observers would agree is logically sound, but subordinates fail to do the things that the superior needs to get done for the strategy to succeed. I want to remove for purposes of this exploration, the case in which the superior has an incoherent, illogical strategy. That is a real problem, but a different one.

A Model

I find that there is a dizzying array of things written on the ‘problem of execution.’ and prescriptions for it. But most of the prescriptions feel like laundry lists. It was hard to see them as helpful, although perhaps some are. Lots of the advice seems to be in the grow taller/be smarter category — much less actionable than Chris Argyris would have insisted on.

I strongly prefer pareto charts to laundry lists. Laundry lists tend to confuse and obfuscate while pareto charts focus the mind. I also prefer a model for thinking about how the tall columns on the Pareto chart relate to one another rather than using a Pareto chart only to shorten a long laundry list.

With the goal of providing a useful model of the key breakdowns in translating thought into action, I have distilled my observations of this phenomenon over the forty years of my consulting career into the four reasons for failure to get things done that I believe explain over 80% of failure occurrences. These reasons fall into to two categories. Below I lay out the categories and a remedy for each.

1) Your Chartering

As a background, my view is that a better way to think about ‘execution’ is to recognize that everybody in an organization makes important choices, not just those formulating ‘strategy,’ presumably from the top of the organization. The two key tasks for managers are: a) to make the choices for which you are responsible for making yourself and b) to charter the choices of the next level.

I see two fundamental problems with choice chartering that result in lack of desirable action being taken.

The first is that your definition of victory isn’t clear and understood entirely by your subordinates. As a result, the subordinates make choices that fulfil their target, but that target isn’t consistent with yours. The subordinates may not aim as high as you. As a result, the subordinates may be perfectly happy, but you are disappointed. Or, the subordinates may have a different timing goal in their heads and may produce the desired answer, but not as quickly as you need it. Sometimes this is because they are perfectionist and keep working on achieving the perfect answer, spinning their wheels, when you would have preferred a high-quality answer, on time.

The remedy of this first problem in choice chartering is to give more time and attention to clarifying the definition of victory, or objective function, for your subordinates: what success looks like. I recommend asking subordinates to write down what they heard from you, to make sure that the receiver is on the same page as the transmitter. Edit it back and forth until you and the subordinate are entirely on the same page.

The second is that subordinates escape to victimization — i.e., are able to claim lack of tools — money, staffing, etc. — and/or authority — i.e., the requisite decision authority/rights — to accomplish the task assigned.

The remedy of this second problem in choice chartering is to sequence the subordinate’s task. Provide the definition of victory as above, but rather than saying ‘off you go,’ ask subordinates to go off and think about whether they have the resources necessary to accomplish the goal, and then come back and talk to you. You then have a chance to fix any resource/decision rights issues before they become problems. Alternatively, it gives you a chance to recognize that a subordinate isn’t capable of the task at hand because you fundamentally disagree with the resources and/or decision rights demanded to get the job done.

This will clearly differ by subordinate. Some will clearly understand your objective function and tackle the task with a reasonable allocation of resources, while others will be less clear and/or play the victim card. The key is not to wait until later to discover the gaps. Figure out the gaps early. Don’t wait until they are painful.

2) Their Skills

Your choice chartering could be just fine, but the subordinates’ skills could be lacking, even though it would have been reasonable for you to think those skills were adequate. I see two major skills deficits that tend to arise.

The first is that the subordinate in question is vulnerable to distraction. People in general tend to be adept at making lists of their tasks at hand, and to order those tasks from easy to hard or, alternatively from fun to laborious. And if they haven’t built up skill and experience in prioritization, they will start with easy/fun tasks and get to hard/laborious later. If your task is in your subordinate’s hard/laborious category, your subordinate may understand fully what is required and plan to get to it, but just not get to it in a timeframe that works for you because the subordinate is distracted by the beckoning easy/fun tasks.

I experienced this in spades in my days at Monitor Company, where we adopted the Bain & Company innovation of having consultants always assigned to two projects at a time. The theory was that when one case was less busy, the consultant could ramp up work on the other rather be idled, and vice versa. It seemed like a sensible productivity-maximizing approach, but inevitably, rather than allocating half their time to each case, which was the intended design, consultants allocated 75–80% to their easy/fun case and 20–25% to their hard/laborious case.

The remedy is to get rid of distractions. When you see slippage, clear the subordinate’s plate of everything except the hard/laborious task that is currently being left for later. It is better to give the remaining tasks to other subordinates rather than to believe that the subordinate currently has the skills to juggle effectively. Slowly work the subordinate up to juggling more tasks, teaching the subordinate how to handle the distractions and prioritize effectively.

In my first year out of business school, I got advice from a senior partner in the little strategy firm that I joined, who saw me tackling first the easiest part of the project on which I was working for him. He encouraged me to make a list of the project components from hardest to easiest and told me that I would be more effective and end up happier if I started at the hardest and worked my way down, rather than the other way around. His reasoning was that when you solve the hardest piece, lots of the other pieces disappear because they turn out to have been derivative of the hard problem. If instead, you start from the easiest, the persistence of the hard problems keeps making everything miserable. He was right — and it was one of the best pieces of advice I have ever gotten.

The second is that subordinates are unskilled in the choice chartering process discussed above. Sometimes the work you assign can be carried out alone by the subordinate. But probably more often, subordinates need the help of their subordinates. In that case, if your subordinates are not yet skilled in choice chartering, their subordinates will be confused about the definition of victory they are working towards and/or be lacking the resources/decision authority to complete their pieces of the work.

The remedy is to mentor them on choice chartering by doing two things. First, be transparent and explicit during your choice chartering to them. Explain what you are doing, and why and how you are doing it, so that they learn choice chartering while watching. Second, offer to help them with their choice chartering. I do this by roleplaying their subordinate with them. I have them conduct a choice chartering session with me simulating their subordinate. I then repeat back to them, as if I was their subordinate, what I heard and what I therefore planned to do in order to give them a glimpse of how effective they were. Often it requires a few tries to get the chartering that they intended, which can avert the breakdown that would have otherwise happened, and improve their skill level in this important capability.

Practitioner Insights

If you want to get things done, there is no substitute for having a coherent, logical strategy. Without that, there is nothing worth even trying to get done.

If you have that in hand, the next important thing is to invest in choice chartering. Never tell your subordinates to ‘execute’ your strategy. Tell them that you need them to make a set of choices that will bring your choices to life. That means you need to be very clear as to what choices you need them to contemplate and make, with what target outcome and with what deadlines.

Communicate all of that to your subordinates. Get them to write their understanding of the task back to you, as well as the resources and decision authority they need to make the choices. Either provide the resources and decision authority requested or explain to them that their requests are unrealistic and come to an upfront agreement on what is possible. If you can’t agree upfront on the task and resources, you have gotten an early warning that you had better find another subordinate for that specific task.

Help them become better choice charterers. That will help your strategy choices be brought to life and will help them be more effective managers. Finally, watch like a hawk for early warning signs of distraction and simplify as necessary to get subordinates back on task.

That is the tricky but doable recipe for getting it done!

BTW, the launch of my next book, A New Way to Think, is tomorrow. Yay! If you enjoy the Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights series, I predict you will love the book. Please consider buying it here.

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Roger Martin

Roger Martin

Professor Roger Martin is a writer, strategy advisor and in 2017 was named the #1 management thinker in world. He is also former Dean of the Rotman School.