4 Disciplines of Execution

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We’re stuck in the whirlwind, the never-ending flow of current matters, urgent tasks, and lots of shallow work. The more we do, the less we accomplish. We have important goals we want to pursue, but the whirlwind inevitably always takes precedence.

4 Disciplines of Execution is a system for actually achieving those goals. Those are simple ideas, but together make a system that creates space for executing your goals.

  1. Focus on the wildly important goal
  2. Act on lead measures
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard
  4. Create a cadence of accountability

Focus on the wildly important goal

Pick one or, at most, two really important goals for your team. Any more and they’ll drown completely among the whirlwind.

Like with habits, once a goal is achieved, you can keep it and pursue something else. But do it sequentially.

For best results, the WIG should take the form of “from x to y by when”, e.g. “increase monthly revenue from $100,000 to $200,000 by the end of the year”. Goals that are harder to express numerically (like when the goal is the completion of a project) don’t work as well with 4DX.

Act on lead mesures

Here’s the key insight of the book:

We tend to focus on the lag measures — the stuff we ultimately care about (say, revenue, clients, papers published). The problem is that there is a lag between our actions and the result. Our company’s revenue is the consequence of actions accumulated over a long time. So we can’t directly influence the lag measure day to day, and we can’t directly trace back the result to our actions.

To be able to track and measure our progress, we need a lead measure. A lead measure is a proxy for the lag measure. Lead measures happen today, but influence the lag measure tomorrow.

A good lead measure is both predictive of the lag measure and directly influencable.

(Daily production is a bad lead measure for annual production. It’s predictive, but still not directly influencable. Time spent writing is a good lead measure for the number of blog posts published in a year.)

Aside: I always used to dismiss the idea of proxy measures because of bad uses of them. For example, companies tracking lines of code produced by a programmer. But that’s a bad lead measure. It’s influencable, but not predictive if quality and long-term maintainability is a goal.

Another metaphor: lead measures are about leverage. You can’t move that stone directly, but take a lever, push far enough, and you can work with it.

Keep a compelling scoreboard

People play differently when they keep the score.

When you have a lead measure, influencable and predictive of the main goal, put the lead measure on a scoreboard. A compelling scoreboard, that everyone can see.

This is about engagement in the team. Engagement drives results, but seeing those results every day feeds back and drives more engagement.

Again, make the scoreboard simple. Not a coach’s scoreboard with all sorts of charts and lots of data. A player’s scoreboard. You must be able to tell if you’re winning within 5 seconds of looking at the scoreboard.

Create a cadence of accountability

This binds the whole system together. You need a regular, weekly WIG meeting. This has to be quick and engaging, but also mandatory. No matter the whirlwind, you must push your goal every single week. You need a feedback loop, a weekly review, a cadence of accountability to drive the goal forward and keep people engaged.

Make it a high stakes game.

The point of the meeting: review progress and make goals for the next week. This isn’t a status meeting for the boss. The point is that everyone makes their own goals and commitments, and then reviews those commitments the next week.

Keep it focused. The goals are for driving the lead measure. Have everyone make just one or two commitments that can move the lead measure. Nothing else. And nothing about the daily whirlwind.

Just one or two tasks by every person that can influence the lead measure.

On implementing it

For the system to work, you must have a buy-in from the whole team. It can’t be a top-down system forced by the boss upon the team. That won’t work, because no one will be engaged by that.

Work with the team to figure out one wildly important goal, one lead measure for that goal, to create the player’s scoreboard, and for everyone to make their own commitments each week to drive the goal.

(A combination of top-down and bottom-up. A manager gets the big picture, but it’s a game that players will play, so they have to design it to care.)

Example: Deep Work

Deep Work offered a compelling personal example of this system at work:

  1. You have an important personal goal to accomplish, say, “Publish 10 peer-reviewed papers by the end of the year”
  2. You know that a predictive and influencable lead measure is to spend as much time writing in deep work, so you start tracking that
  3. You make a compelling scoreboard of time spent in deep work. Put it on a whiteboard maybe, and each day you fill in a box, then add up the count for the week.
  4. Each week, you review the lead measure progress last week, make a commitment for next week, and decide if you can improve the process.
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