Two Incredibly Simple Secrets to Excellence in Execution

We had come to the end of two very intense days. Whiteboards had been scribbled on, erased, and scribbled on again and again. Flip chart pages stuck to the wall like debris from a battlefield. The executives in the room sat bleary-eyed and exhausted.

I had seen this before. I had caused this before. And I wasn’t done. At least not yet.

For I’ve learned from bitter experience that all the best intentions of any strategy session, no matter how brilliant, will amount to nothing—zero, zip, nada—if execution isn’t part of the process. So I end every engagement like this with the following two exercises and have discovered that these exercises are, in fact, the secrets to excellence in execution.

Yes, they’re simple, but they’re not easy to do. And, yes, they work. Amazingly. The last team I used them with delivered the highest quarterly revenue increase in the history of their company. So here they are: focus and follow-through.

SECRET ONE: Focus

The first exercise, which you can do anytime as a business leader, is this: Select 3-4 things to do from your long list of things to do and make them your most important things to do for the next three months. In other words, I ask the executives in the room to identify, from all the issues we’ve talked about, what their highest priorities are for the next quarter. And I only let them have three or four.

One reason why we fail to execute at the highest levels of excellence is that we are simply trying to do too much. When we try to do too much we end up doing a lot of things halfway and nothing very well. So the first key to excellence in execution is focus. That is, determining the handful of things that will have the greatest impact on our work and concentrating on them like a laser.

Focus as a key to execution is confirmed by actual data from the field. Productivity specialists, FranklinCovey, surveyed thousands of teams and discovered the following facts:

How many goals

Please note, that focus is not doing less for the sake of doing less, but doing less for the sake of doing more. That is, doing the few things that will achieve 100 things, rather than doing things that are utterly inconsequential to your business.

Focus simply answers the question, “What are your vital few priorities for the next three months?”

Notice, also, how this secret doesn’t just focus on a limited list of things to do, but also on a limited time in which to do them: one quarter. Ever wonder how you get so much done before you go on vacation? Or how hard salespeople push to meet their goal at the end of the year? Want to enjoy that same intensity all year long? Establish four finish lines, not just one, by creating highly-focused quarterly sprints.

Quarterly sprints, to be sure, need to be coordinated with your annual plan and overall business objectives. The secret to their success, however, is that you concentrate on a few high priorities and get them done in a fixed period of time. I even like the rhythm of 12 weeks sprinting and one week jogging four times a year, rather than a 52 week marathon.

SECRET TWO: Follow-through

Focus, however, is not enough to drive excellence in execution. It’s not enough to identify your top priorities for the next three months, you actually have to do them (Imagine that!). So the next exercise we complete is what I call a Sequence of Events.

A Sequence of Events is simply the steps of action it will take to complete your vital few priorities for the quarter. First brainstorm all those steps, making sure that they are specific and measurable. Then put them in their chronological order based on due date and assign them to the person who will be accountable for their completion. Another way to say this is WWW: Who is going to do What by When?

Then make the Sequence of Events publicly available for all to see and track progress against it every week for the next 12 weeks.

Excellence in Execution

As simple as it sounds, very few leaders actually do this. It’s like they have leadership ADD, moving on to the next shiny object that attracts their attention, rather than keeping the main thing the main thing. If adjustments needs to be made mid-quarter to the Sequence of Events, and I’ve never seen a quarterly sprint that didn’t need some adjustments, make them and move on. Plan your work and work your plan.

I have a group of business leaders I meet with for an entire day each quarter of the year. I call this group the Business Growth Club. In our sessions together we talk about all kinds of issues, effective marketing, employee engagement, financial intelligence. But every session ends with each leader identifying the 3-4 goals they are going to work on in their business over the next quarter, and the specific steps of action they’re going to take to achieve those goals. And every session begins by each leader standing up in front of the group and reporting on the progress of their quarterly plan.

The growth in these businesses over the course of the year is amazing. I’ve become convinced that I could do nothing else but insist that the two exercises of focus and follow-through are completed, and these business leaders would get their money’s worth from the program. But, of course, they get much more (Not to mention a free lunch).

Here’s The Bottom Line

Two older women sat in the back pew enduring a typical Sunday morning sermon. One of the women, who was hard of hearing, said to the other woman, “Is the sermon done yet?”

To which the other woman replied, “It’s been said, now it needs to be done!”

When all is said and done in business, there’s a lot more said than done. Yes? It’s time to stop talking about things and it’s time to start doing them by utilizing the two secrets of excellence in execution: focus and follow-through.