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Activity beats execution

The Execution Fad — like strategic planning, management by objective, total quality, just-in-time and others before it — has had its day, leaving a predictable wake of unproductive time, talk and failed expectations.

Like most ingénue concepts of their decades, Execution hasn’t made much difference other than hanging a new title onto something we’ve known all along that we need to do: Move our organizations forward.
The problem with Execution is its underlying presumption about how organizations advance. Execution sees it as a sequence of assaults, each with independent targets, plans to apply resources, metrics to track progress, enforcing mechanisms and ends that correspond to specifically articulated and measurable goals.
But the lives of truly vibrant businesses aren’t a series of independent assaults on predetermined targets.
They’re rather more like our own lives: continuous unfolding of experiences, understandings, adjustments and progress, with plenty of improvisation along the way.
So how, from your position of responsibility at the top, do you mobilize this kind of unfolding? The great news is that it’s more about simply letting it happen than making anything unnatural occur. Your job is setting the stage and, once that’s done, guiding. It’s not setting every target, dictatorial monitoring, unusual rewards, threats or exhortations.
Swapping out the rigid ideas of Deadlines and Execution for the more flexible ideas of Milestones and Activity starts you off in the right direction.
But there’s a preamble. It’s your compelling idea about what your company might become over a reasonable timeframe. I usually pick a nine- to 20-month range. Milestones, then, are the points of learning and accomplishments that you believe might move you in that direction. And activities are the actions that move you toward your Milestones.
A contrast of examples helps:
Execution-Deadlines Thinking
Goal: Grow profits at mid-year by 15 percent

  • Introduce new product X by time Y
  • Reduce raw materials costs by Z percent
  • Upgrade the sales manager and add two reps now
  • Hire a branding consultant now
  • Redesign the website in Q2
  • Launch a social media campaign for Q3

Sound familiar?
Activity-Milestone Thinking
Compelling idea: Take over No. 1 position in our business

  • Learn from customers why we’re No. 3
  • Develop a list of possible adjustments
  • Test sets of adjustments on customer behavior and evaluate responses by #1 and #2
  • Refine understandings of timing, costs and risks of the best alternatives
  • Launch one or more initiatives
  • Monitor and adjust approaches as we move forward

Activities: The actions you set in place to move toward, but also continually rethink, each milestone.
Execution-Deadline thinking is anchored in a contrived notion that we can identify meaningful, long-term objectives and define the actions to achieve it — at the outset. With military rigidity. That ensures compliance.
Activity-Milestone thinking acknowledges the likelihood of new learning along the way about the reasonableness of the target and about the means of its attainment. With improvisational fluidity. That encourages organizational creativity and vibrancy that Execution-Deadline thinking never achieves!

Dick Cross
Dick Cross is a serial CEO; a professional keynote speaker; a best-selling author; founder of The Cross Partnership Ltd.; and a founding member of Alston Capital Partners. Email him at [email protected].