222 – Execution – the discipline of getting things done. Read it.

By Colin Weatherby                                                                               1200 words


Occasionally someone tells you about a management book that provides insight and leads to a new understanding of what you do every day. Or what you don’t do. This is one of those books and every leader in local government should read it.

Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan have combined their knowledge of practice and theory to provide advice on linking the three core processes that they believe are at the heart of every organisation – people, strategy and operations – to get things done.

Failure to execute is a common criticism of local government. People often say that councils are overly bureaucratic, full of red tape, unable to make decisions or constantly changing them under pressure. I read the book not knowing what to expect. It is a book that really shouldn’t be necessary. After all, organisations only exist to do something and doesn’t doing something require execution?

It doesn’t take long before you realise the book is not just about doing something, it is about doing what is needed to meet your commitments and achieve the results you have promised. It is about helping leaders make commitments outside their organisation that can be delivered and ensuring that commitment obtained inside their organisation is followed through to execution.

In a humorous introduction to the book the authors provide a multi-faceted definition of ‘execution’, which includes that it is the missing link, the main reason organisations fall short of their promises, the gap between what leaders want to achieve and the ability of their organisations to deliver it, and a discipline for meshing strategy with reality.

The book is structured around the ‘building blocks’ of execution – leader behaviour, cultural change and people selection – and the ‘core processes’ of execution – people, strategy and operations – and how they are linked. It is logical and self-reinforcing with a blend of theory and practical anecdotes. There are some key takeaways for local government.

Execution is the work of the leader and requires a ‘comprehensive understanding of a business, its people, and its environment’. Leaders get things done by picking other leaders, setting the strategic direction and conducting operations. They need to have a comprehensive view of the organisation and ask the incisive questions.

“Only a leader can ask the tough questions that everyone needs to answer, then manage the process of debating the information and making the right trade-offs.”

The selection of leaders in local government has been the topic of several posts (see here and here) and is unlikely to support execution, as defined by Bossidy and Charan. They provide advice for organisations competing intensely for leaders. I am not sure that local government sees itself as competing for leaders but it must be – doesn’t every organisation in every industry wants the best people it can get?

The authors say that one way to get the right people in the right jobs, especially leaders in a changing environment, is to write job descriptions for the jobs as they need to exist tomorrow and match them to the people holding those jobs today. Imagine. I am already starting to feel uncomfortable.

As challenging as this might be, it makes sense that you need to recruit people who can meet the needs of the future if you are to respond effectively to a changing environment. Hiring more people who are the same as the ones you have today won’t enable leadership of the required change.

The authors spend a fair amount of time discussing strategy and why it fails. They see strategy as defining the organisation’s direction and positioning it to move in that direction. Unsurprisingly, they say a good strategic planning process pays attention to how the strategy is to be executed.

“It’s (the strategy) substance and detail must come from the minds of the people who are closest to the action and who understand the markets (the community), their resources, and their strengths and weaknesses.”

The problems with local government planning processes have been well documented in previous posts (see here, here and here). Analysis of council strategic plans (typically called the City Plan or Council Plan) will show that many are reacting to political issues and few set a strong and clear direction or one that is any different to the current direction.

Bossidy and Charan make an important distinction between corporate and business unit strategy, which is relevant to local government.

“Corporate-level strategy is the vehicle for allocating resources among all of the business units. But it should not simply be the sum of those parts. If it is, then the business units could do just as well standing on their own (or better, because they wouldn’t bear the burden of corporate overhead). Corporate leaders must add value to strategies created at the business unit level.”

Councils struggle for strategy coherence when they let each business unit plan independently, and then aggregate those plans into a corporate view and publish it. Often there is no organisational strategy providing overall direction and setting the challenges to be met in business unit planning.

The authors describe the need for an operating process that is centred on an operating plan that links strategy and people. I haven’t seen such a plan in over 20 years of working in local government. They say that traditional budget development can defeat the very purpose of planning and see the development of the operating plan as a replacement. Worth a read.

In one succinct statement on operations the authors characterise a key issue for local government:

“To execute well there must be accountability, clear goals, accurate methods to measure performance, and the right rewards for people who perform.”

It is not for lack of effort that councils struggle with these ideas. There have been posts on the complexity in accountability in local government, difficulty providing clear direction, and the lack of relevant performance measurement. Rewards for performance, and penalties for non-performance, are most challenging. Ram Charan captures this aspect of local government leaders neatly.

“We’ve seen again and again that people love to give rewards; they love to be loved. But they don’t have the emotional fortitude to give honest feedback and either withhold a reward or penalise people. They don’t feel comfortable rewarding performance and behaviour. They procrastinate, sugarcoat, and rationalise. Leaders even sometimes create new jobs for nonperformers. As a result the organisation below is totally confused.”

Bossidy describes how he writes letters to leaders after a discussion about their individual or business unit performance, in which he outlines what they have agreed to do. It is almost a mini contract. They are very specific and examples are provided. The conclusion to the book is a letter to a new leader that is full of great advice on how to become effective in execution.

I will let the authors conclude this post with a quote from the closing pages of the book.

“The heart of the working of a business is how the three processes of people, strategy, and operations link together. Leaders need to master the individual processes and the way they work together as a whole. They are the foundation for the discipline of execution, at the centre of conceiving and executing a strategy.”

Bossidy, Larry, and Charan, Ram, (2009) Execution – the discipline of getting things done.