How can leaders with engineering background combine the ideas around the building blocks of goal-achieving (clarity, focus, and execution) with their strengths (reality-based thinking, process design, and accelerated learning) to design actionable blueprints to achieve big goals?
Why a Goal-Achieving Blueprint Matters
“We hoped for the best, but things turned out as usual . . .,” lamented the late Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin more than 20 years ago, when he observed the weak performance of the Russian economy at that time. This blunt observation applies to both politics and business. I’ve encountered this on numerous occasions when big strategic business plans with lofty goals ended up in small drawers, collecting dust.
Why is it that organizations often spend a lot of energy on developing a great strategy, somehow become moderately successful but in the end actually fail to achieve their biggest goals? The problem is seldom related to the quality of the strategic goals. The biggest issue I’ve found is the lack of leadership with respect to execution power: the ability for an organization to consistently move toward its most important goals. This move is also known as strategy execution. For a business leader, strategy execution and goal-achieving are therefore synonymous.
Strategy execution is driven by senior leaders, who are generally hardworking, effective, and successful people. In a business environment that is growing ever more complex, the bar is set higher every day. The better you get, the better you better get. The most effective way to accomplish strategic objectives is to focus on the spear tip of a few initiatives, instead of a broad wave of many initiatives. Previous chapters have shown how important concepts like strategic quitting and building a referral machine help improve execution power and crossing the Valley of Death. This chapter will focus on using the key elements of goal achieving—clarity, focus, and execution—and the key strengths of business leaders with engineering backgrounds—reality-based thinking, process design, and accelerated learning—to build a goal-achieving blueprint to get big things done.
Why Speed and Simplicity Are Important
The twin engines of strategy execution and goal-achieving are simplicity and speed. Simplicity gives a consistent direction, also known as true north. With simplicity, all stakeholders know where an organization is going. One reason the German grocery chain Aldi has been able to successfully keep expanding in a crowded marketplace is simplicity in stockkeeping. It doesn’t believe in multiple brands offering the same product. The one product, one brand strategy acts as a spear tip that makes shopping decisions for its clients simple.
Speed provides a sense of urgency to get moving, test new approaches, and quickly pull the plug when an approach fails. Speed is the driving force for agility and is enormously valued in the marketplace. Amazon Prime is a shining example of how speed can accelerate a business and leave competition far behind. Yet, strangely enough, examples of organizations using speed to create a competitive edge are still limited. It could be that many fear that speed decreases control. However, if you think you’re in control, you’re probably not going fast enough. A focus on speed is therefore a huge opportunity for leaders to make their organizations stand out in the marketplace. Figure 10.1 shows the impact of speed and simplicity on strategy execution power.
Figure 10.1 Impact of speed and simplicity on strategy execution power
If speed and simplicity are absent, you’re stuck in quicksand. You don’t know where to go, which really doesn’t matter because you’re not moving anyway. A typical example, where being stuck in quicksand is no exception, is health care in the United States. In times past, loaded with money, there was no need for health care providers to do things differently. However, in the past two decades, money has become scarce, and many health care organizations are simply lost, using past approaches, which to their horror, no longer work in the new reality.
With plentiful speed but lacking simplicity, you may find yourself running frantically in a hamster wheel. The abundance of organizational activity doesn’t bring you closer to achieving your most important goals. Complicated effort is rewarded over simple results. For example, you saw earlier that more than $130 billion is spent yearly on more and more sophisticated training all over the world, with very little return on investment.
A simple yet slow operation leads to mindless effort. Activities are well-defined, but sense of urgency is lacking. Many government bureaucracies typically operate in this environment. These organizations have fallen in love with the quality of their processes, instead of falling in love with their clients.
Finally, when speed and simplicity come together, you’re operating on new frontiers where great things may happen. Strategy is clearly defined, growth goals are preeminent, and execution is effortless and effective.
How to Build an Execution Engine
Regardless of where you find yourself and your organization on your strategy execution power, there is always opportunity to improve. What if you could build an execution engine based on simplicity and speed, which almost automatically ensures that only the most important things get done in an organization? This approach is what I call selective strategy execution.
The first important element for selective strategy execution is focus. Peter Drucker, the eminent management thinker, once observed that senior executives should focus on only one strategic goal. You can’t ride two bikes at the same time. You came across this one thing in Chapter 2: the Major Definite Purpose. Usually all other strategic objectives support this one objective.
Which one growth goal, that if achieved right here, right now, would have the biggest positive impact on your organization?
The second critical element of selective strategy execution is behavior. You will never get the new results you want from the existing behaviors that you like. In other words, culture (the mindsets governing behaviors) eats strategy for breakfast. A new strategic goal always requires building a new set of behaviors. These behaviors need to be role-modeled by every senior executive. After all, the minimum effective behavior you show yourself is the maximum effective behavior you can expect from others.
Which one behavior would have the biggest positive impact on achieving your most important strategic goal?
The third essential element of selective strategy execution is rhythmic, compound improvement. Small improvements will have big impact over time due to the compound effect. As shown earlier, the UK rowing team was used to a lackluster performance in the Olympics. In 1998, the team made a decision to do things differently: as of that moment, every action would be judged against the question, “Will it make the boat go faster?” This created a rhythmic and relentless focus on small effectiveness improvements and was the recipe to Olympic Gold in 2000.
Which actions can you take daily to achieve your most important goal and build the most important behaviors for yourself or your organization within 100 days?
These three questions form the heart of an execution engine. Figure 10.2 illustrates the three building blocks of selective strategy execution.
Figure 10.2 The three building blocks of selective strategy execution
How to Put Selective Strategy Execution in Action
A client of mine was running a highly successful service business, catering to global Fortune 2000 companies. However, the company had reached a revenue plateau, and wanted to change things quickly. It had an excellent product, a solid strategy, but were still stuck. Then I noticed two interesting things. First, the organization rapidly came together in times of crisis or urgent need. Second, its senior management quickly lost focus on the strategy, becoming overly eager when even remote new opportunities presented themselves. Would it be possible to use the strength of the company’s collaborative spirit and, at the same time, eliminate the weakness of easy distraction, to create a constant sense of urgency to get things done and stay the course? The answer was selective strategy execution implemented with a few steps.
The first step was to focus on the most important strategic goal. So we asked the question: Which one growth goal that, if achieved right here, right now, would have the biggest positive impact on this organization? After some thought, the answer was actually quite simple: If the company could increase its number of long-term clients by 50 percent, it would break through their revenue ceiling. Thus, increasing the number of long-term Fortune 2000 clients became the major definite purpose (MDP).
The second step was to identify the behaviors necessary to make this strategic goal happen. Therefore, we asked the question: Which one behavior, if we show it consistently in our organization, will have the biggest positive impact? To make the most out of this question, we needed to make use of behavioral distinctions. As discussed earlier, a behavioral distinction draws a clear border between good behavior and the best behavior. The most important behavioral distinction for this company was the difference between pleasing and serving a prospect. Pleasing means giving what the prospect wants. Serving is much more valuable, because you provide what the prospect needs. In this case, a practical application of serving behavior was to consistently refuse giving proposals and quotes to gatekeepers (people who can say no, but can’t say yes), but always talk to the actual decision makers (people invested in the results of their services). This step required courage: As you can imagine, with this selective client approach, the biggest fear was losing actual, easy business.
Finally, we addressed the question “Will it make the boat go faster” with a 100-day challenge, called Start Fast, Finish Strong. In this challenge, we created a recurring strategic review and focused all leadership actions on one question: “Will this help achieve our major definite purpose and build successful behaviors?”
The results were remarkable. Within three months, 50 percent more long-term clients were added to the list. Not only that, but by focusing on behaviors around serving, both price and margins of existing client engagements increased significantly. Finally, a lot of frustration and work were saved by no longer putting time and energy in submitting proposals to lousy prospects.
How to Extend the Blueprint for Selective Strategy Execution
The executive questions to building an execution engine provide the framework to achieve your biggest growth goal. It’s time to extend this framework further and make it more granular. First, by filling in details regarding the building blocks of goal-achieving: clarity, focus, and execution. Second, by applying the strengths of business leaders with engineering backgrounds: reality-based thinking, process design, and accelerated learning.
To get clarity as a leader, you will have to define your most important goal, your major definite purpose. Key questions to define the most important goal:
- Which one growth goal would have the biggest positive impact on my business?
- If I could change one thing to dramatically improve my business, what would it be?
- What would I set out to achieve if I knew I couldn’t fail?
- How would this goal apply to my strengths and the strengths of my organization?
The next step is to apply reality-based thinking. Key questions are:
- Has it been done before? If so, what is the baseline to achieve the goal?
- How will you know when you have achieved the goal?
- What exactly would be the difference between the old situation and the new situation?
After getting clarity on the goal, it’s now time to get clarity on the behaviors that support the goal. The key question is:
- Which one organizational behavior, If I could change right here, right now, would help most to achieve the major definite purpose?
In preparing to cross the Valley of Death, your first approach is to use your process design strength to develop options:
- How can we apply triage to minimize the risks and maximize the gains before crossing the Valley of Death?
- How can we build a portfolio of options to achieve the goal?
Then decide how to allocate resources, diversify with portfolio thinking, and minimize energy:
- How would we allocate our time, energy, and money between risky new goals and existing operations?
- What are the vital few initiatives in our portfolio that will give us the majority of results?
The next step is to build language and metaphors by applying distinctions:
- What would the new culture that accompanies this big goal look like?
- Which behavioral distinctions would help us most to consistently show the most important new behavior?
Finally, apply strategic quitting to let go in order to reach out:
- What are the milestone criteria to kill any alternatives to achieve this goal?
- What can we delegate, eliminate, or outsource to free up time, energy, and money?
Now it’s time to get going. These questions will prepare for obstacles and help overcome setbacks. Here’s where you can use accelerated learning:
- What are our blind spots resulting from a pre-mortem exercise?
- Which one organizational Kryptonite habit needs to be eliminated to make the new goal happen?
- Which one personal Kryptonite habit must be eliminated to make the new goal happen?
- Which parts of the referral engine will help me most to quickly get new customers and grow the business?
The final questions to make selective strategy execution happen are:
- Which part of the one growth goal will help my organization most and can be achieved within 100 days?
- Which one behavior do I need to drive as a leader to make this goal happen?
- How can I use a spider line and set up a system of rhythmic compound improvement to reach the 100-day objective?
Why Selective Strategy Execution Builds on Engineering Strengths
Selective strategy execution is a powerful tool for business leaders to quickly make huge progress in complex organizations toward their most important strategic goals. On paper, it’s deceptively easy, yet implementation walks a fine line between failure and success. You should make your strategy as simple as possible and go as fast as you can.
The selective strategy execution approach really makes a difference for leaders with an engineering background for a few reasons.
First, the natural impulse for any organization is to add complexity to manage complex systems. This is actually counter-effective. Did the introduction of the new and vastly better Human Resources IT package really improve actual adherence to individual personal development plans? Probably not. Instead, simplicity is a very refreshing approach to get things done. If you have only one objective, decision making becomes easy. Instead of gradually moving a wide range of strategic initiatives, use the reality principle to apply the incredible power of the spear tip: massive action centered on the most important goal.
Next, selective strategy execution applies process design, because it’s focused on systematically building new behaviors in the entire organization. This reason is often the missing part of any strategy. When was the last time you saw a strategic plan where the biggest amount of time and effort was dedicated to building new behaviors? As apparent from the case study, these behaviors are not only essential to achieve your big goals, but often have a wide-ranging positive impact on other parts of the organization as well.
Finally, building new behaviors is the cornerstone for rhythmic, compound improvement. It keeps strategy top-of-mind, not only for senior executives, but also for every employee. By focusing on role modeling the desired behaviors every single day, a senior executive is therefore able to change the entire organization in a positive way. Role-modeling is how you put your strengths of accelerated learning into practice.
How to Expand Your Impact as a Business Leader
This book started with a question: How can business leaders with an engineering past apply their strengths to accelerate their career trajectories? You’ve seen that there is a method to the madness. My objective was to organize the nonobvious and make this method transparent. Doing so required a different framework: the combination of the three building blocks of goal achieving—clarity, focus, and execution—with the three strengths of leaders with engineering backgrounds—reality-based thinking, process design, and accelerated learning. These six elements drive great business leadership and help you to become an unstoppable goal achiever.
Yet, once you start working with these six elements and adopt this way of thinking to grow your business and grow as a leader, something else will happen as well: You will massively influence your organization. The reason is that the minimum effective behavior you adopt yourself is the maximum effective behavior you can expect from others. This is good news. By changing your minimum standards, you’ll suddenly be able to change the entire organization. This effect is called trim tab leadership. The principle of a trim tab is illustrated in Figure 10.3.
Figure 10.3 Trim tab in a rudder of a boat
A trim tab is a small rudder placed on a big rudder of a large ship. By changing the direction of the trim tab (1) you change the direction of the big rudder and (2) which changes the course of a large ship. Your conscious decision to act as a trim tab and improve yourself as a leader will have a huge impact on your entire environment. This practice is how successful engineers expand their impact and become great business leaders.