An insightful new book from the multimillion-copy bestselling author Sean Covey and the FranklinCovey organization based on their work with hundreds of thousands of employees and large companies to unveil the essential disciplines proven to help businesses and individuals realize their most important goals.
Do you remember the last major initiative you watched die in your organization? Did it go down with a loud crash? Or was it slowly and quietly suffocated by other competing priorities?
By the time it finally disappeared, it’s likely no one even noticed.
What happened? The “whirlwind” of urgent activity required to keep things running day-to-day devoured all the time and energy you needed to invest in executing your strategy for tomorrow! The 4 Disciplines of Execution can change all that forever.
The 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) is a simple, repeatable, and proven formula for executing on your most important strategic priorities in the midst of the whirlwind. By following The 4 Disciplines:
· Focusing on the Wildly Important
· Acting on Lead Measures
· Keeping a Compelling Scoreboard
· Creating a Cadence of Accountability
leaders can produce breakthrough results, even when executing the strategy requires a significant change in behavior from their teams.
4DX is not theory. It is a proven set of practices that have been tested and refined by hundreds of organizations and thousands of teams over many years. When a company or an individual adheres to these disciplines, they achieve superb results—regardless of the goal. 4DX represents a new way of thinking and working that is essential to thriving in today’s competitive climate. Simply put, this is one book that no business leader can afford to miss.
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Chris McChesney is the Global Practice Leader of Execution for FranklinCovey and one of the primary developers of The 4 Disciplines of Execution. For more than a decade, he has led FranklinCovey's ongoing design and development of these principles, as well as the consulting organization that has achieved extraordinary growth in many countries around the globe and impacted hundreds of organizations.
Sean Covey is Executive Vice President of Global Solutions and Partnerships for FranklinCovey and oversees FranklinCovey's international operations in 141 countries around the globe. As the Chief Product Architect for FranklinCovey, Sean organized and directed the original teams that conceived and created The 4 Disciplines of Execution and has been an avid practitioner and promoter of the methodology ever since.
Jim Huling is the Managing Consultant for FranklinCovey's The 4 Disciplines of Execution. Jim's career spans more than three decades of corporate leadership, from Fortune 500 organizations to privately held companies, including serving as CEO of a company recognized as one of the "25 Best Companies to Work for in America." Prior to joining FranklinCovey, Jim was one of the first leaders to adopt The 4 Disciplines of Execution.
The 4 Disciplines of Execution
Discipline 1: Focus on the Wildly Important
The first discipline is to focus your finest effort on the one or two goals that will make all the difference, instead of giving mediocre effort to dozens of goals.
Execution starts with focus. Without it, the other three disciplines won’t be able to help you.
Why do almost all leaders struggle to narrow their focus? It’s not because they don’t think focus is needed. Every week, we work with dozens of leadership teams across the world and, almost without exception, they acknowledge that they need greater focus. Despite this desire, they continue to find themselves with too many competing priorities, pulling their teams in too many different directions. One of the first things we want you to know is that you are not alone. The inability of leaders to focus is a problem of epidemic proportions.
We also want you to know that when we talk about narrowing your focus in Discipline 1, we are not talking about narrowing the size and complexity of your whirlwind, although, over time, attention to WIGs might have that effect. Your whirlwind includes all of the urgent activities that are necessary to sustain your business day to day. Focusing on the wildly important means narrowing the number of goals you are attempting to accomplish beyond the day-to-day demands of your whirlwind.
Practicing Discipline 1 means narrowing your focus to a few highly important goals so you can manageably achieve them in the midst of the whirlwind of the day job.
Simply put, Discipline 1 is about applying more energy against fewer goals because, when it comes to setting goals, the law of diminishing returns is as real as the law of gravity.
Your chances of achieving 2 or 3 goals with excellence are high, but the more goals you try to juggle at once, the less likely you will be to reach them.
If a team focuses on two or even three goals beyond the demands of their whirlwind, they can often accomplish them. However, if they set four to ten goals, our experience has been that they will achieve only one or two. They’ll be going backward! If they go after eleven to twenty goals in addition to the whirlwind, they’ll lose all focus. Confronted with so many goals the team members will stop listening let alone executing.
Why is this so?
The fundamental principle at work in Discipline 1 is that human beings are genetically hardwired to do one thing at a time with excellence. You’re probably thinking—proudly—that you’re great at multi-tasking and can get a lot of things done at the same time. But to the wildly important goal you want to devote your best effort. Steve Jobs of Apple had a big company to run, and he could have proudly brought many more products to market than he did; but he chose to focus on a handful of “wildly important” products. His focus was legendary. And so were his results. Science tells us the human brain can give full focus to only a single object at any given moment. You can’t even give your best effort to driving a car while talking on a mobile phone and eating a burger, let alone juggle multiple important business goals at once.
MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller says, “Trying to concentrate on two tasks causes an overload of the brain’s processing capacity.... Particularly when people try to perform similar tasks at the same time, such as writing an email and talking on the phone, they compete to use the same part of the brain. Trying to carry too much, the brain simply slows down.”5 If this is true of simple tasks like processing emails and phone calls, think of the impact of losing focus on the goals that could transform your business.
The prefrontal cortex, the brain’s gateway, just can’t handle the daily flood that comes at us, because it is designed to deal with teaspoons rather than tidal waves of information.
In our culture of multitasking, according to Professor Clifford Nass of Stanford University, “The neural circuits devoted to scanning, skimming, and multitasking are expanding and strengthening, while those used for reading and thinking deeply, with sustained concentration, are weakening or eroding.”
What’s the consequence? “Habitual multitaskers may be sacrificing performance on the primary task. They are suckers for irrelevancy.” (Another term for the primary task is the WIG.)
“Improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively... the more you multitask... the less deliberative you become; the less you’re able to think and reason out a problem,” says Jordan Grafman of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in the USA.6
Of course, you don’t have to overload the brain. You can leverage the brain’s capacity to concentrate superbly on one wildly important goal at a time, while still being aware of the other priorities. There’s no better illustration of this principle than an airport control tower.
Right now more than a hundred airplanes might be approaching, taking off, or taxiing around, and all of them are very important, especially if you happen to be on one of them! But for the air traffic controller, only one airplane is wildly important right now—the one that’s landing at this moment.
The controller is aware of all the other planes on the radar. She’s keeping track of them, but right now all her talent and expertise is solely focused on one flight. If she doesn’t get that flight on the ground safely and with total excellence, then nothing else she might achieve is really going to matter much. She lands one airplane at a time.
WIGs are like that. They are the goals you must achieve with total excellence beyond the circling priorities of your day to day. To succeed, you must be willing to make the hard choices that separate what is wildly important from all the many other merely important goals on your radar. Then, you must approach that WIG with focus and diligence until it is delivered as promised, with excellence.
That doesn’t mean you abandon all your other important goals. They’re still on your radar, but they don’t require your finest diligence and effort right now. (Still, some of those goals might never be worthy of your finest diligence and effort—some of them never should have taken off in the first place!)
People who try to push many goals at once usually wind up doing a mediocre job on all of them. You can ignore the principle of focus, but it won’t ignore you. Or you can leverage this principle to achieve your top goals, one at a time, again and again.
All of our goals are Priority 1. We can successfully multitask and succeed at five, ten, or fifteen important goals. All we need to do is work harder and longer...
Many of our goals are important, but only one or two are wildly important. We call them WIGs. They are the goals we must achieve. Our finest effort can only be given to one or two wildly important goals at a time.
THE LEADER’S CHALLENGE
So, here’s the big question: Why is there so much pressure toward expanding, rather than narrowing, the goals? If you understand the need to focus, why is it so difficult to actually do it?
You might say that, as a leader, it’s because you can always see more than a dozen existing things that need improvement and another dozen new opportunities you’d like to be chasing on any given day. On top of that, there are other people (and other peoples’ agendas) that can be adding to your goals, especially if they are from higher up in the organization.
However, more often than any of these external forces, there’s one real culprit that creates most of the problem: you. In the words of the old cartoon, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Although the tendencies that drive you to the higher side of the scale are well-intentioned, in a very real sense, you are often your own worst enemy. Being aware of these tendencies is a good place to start. Let’s examine a few of them candidly.
One reason you may drive your team to take on too much is that, as a leader, you tend to be ambitious and creative. You are exactly the kind of individual organizations like to promote. The problem is that creative, ambitious people always want to do more, not less. If this describes you, you’re almost hardwired to violate the first discipline of execution.
Another reason you might lead your team to go after too many goals is to hedge your bets. In other words, if your team pursues everything, then it seems likely that something might work. It also ensures that, if you fail, no one can question the level of effort your team gave. Even though you know that more is not better, it looks better, especially to the person above you. So, you may resist the increased accountability for results that would come with fewer goals and instead rely on the sheer volume of effort to drive your success.
However, the greatest challenge you face in narrowing your goals is simply that it requires you to say no to a lot of good ideas. 4DX may even mean saying no to some great ideas, at least for now. Nothing is more counterintuitive for a leader than saying no to a good idea, and nothing is a bigger destroyer of focus than always saying yes.
What makes it even harder is that these good ideas aren’t presented all at once, wrapped in a nice little bundle so that choosing among them would be simple. Instead, they filter in one at a time. Alone, each idea seems to make so much sense that it’s almost impossible for you to say no, so you fall into a trap of your own making.
We believe all leaders facing this challenge should have this quote prominently displayed in their offices:
We can’t overemphasize the importance of focusing on only one or two WIGs at once. It’s counterintuitive, but it must happen.
Before Apple was named company of the decade in the United States by multiple sources,7 then COO Tim Cook (now CEO) said this to the company’s shareholders:
“We are the most focused company that I know of or have read of or have any knowledge of. We say no to good ideas every day. We say no to great ideas in order to keep the amount of things we focus on very small in number so that we can put enormous energy behind the ones we do choose. The table each of you is sitting at today, you could probably put every product on it that Apple makes, yet Apple’s revenue last year was $40 billion.”8
Apple’s determination to say no to good ideas has had devastating consequences for their competitors. We once worked with a manufacturer that competed directly with Apple’s iPhone. When we met with the leader responsible for creating a new interface to compete with the iPhone (How would you like that assignment?), he was more than a little discouraged. “It’s really not fair,” he said, shaking his head. “Between our domestic and international operations we make over forty different phones. They only make one.”
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
As Stephen R. Covey says, “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, unapologetically—to say no to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.”
Once you understand the importance of saying no to good ideas in order to keep your team’s focus narrow, you can avoid the first of two focus traps. However, the second trap, trying to turn everything in the whirlwind into a WIG, is even more common. Once caught in it, you try to turn everything in the whirlwind into a goal.
Within the whirlwind are all of your existing measurements for running the organization today, illustrated below as dials. It’s perfectly appropriate for your team to spend 80 percent of their time and energy sustaining or incrementally improving the whirlwind. Keeping the ship afloat should be job one, but if they are spending 100 percent of their energy trying to significantly improve all of those dials at once, you will have lost your focus.
In the organizational whirlwind, people track countless numbers—finances, customer satisfaction scores, product life cycles, and so forth. A new, wildly important goal can get lost in this storm.
Applying even pressure to all these dials is like trying to make holes in a piece of paper by applying even pressure with all your fingers. You can’t press on any one dial with enough force to drive a change in human behavior. Many of the dials require dozens of changes in human behavior in order to move them. Focusing on one WIG is like punching one finger through the paper—all your strength goes into making that hole.
Unless you can achieve your goal with a stroke of the pen, success is going to require your team to change their behavior; and they simply cannot change that many behaviors at once, no matter how badly you want them to. Trying to significantly improve every measure in the whirlwind will consume all of your time and leave you with very little to show for it.
So, beyond avoiding these two focus traps—refusing to say no to all the good ideas and trying to make everything in the whirlwind a goal—what should you do? Narrow your focus to one or two wildly important goals and consistently invest the team’s time and energy into them. In other words, if you want high-focus, high-performance team members, they must have something wildly important to focus on.
While you don’t lose track of the numbers in the whirlwind, Discipline 1 requires intense focus on one number—the measure of success on the “wildly important goal.”
IDENTIFYING YOUR WILDLY IMPORTANT GOALS
A wildly important goal (WIG) is a goal that can make all the difference. Because it’s your strategic tipping point, you’re going to commit to apply a disproportionate amount of energy to it—the 20 percent that is not used up in the whirlwind. But how do you decide which of many possible goals should be your WIG?
Sometimes, the choice of a WIG is obvious, but at other times it can be confusing. If you try to select your WIG by aski...
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