Think back to January. Did you resolve to do something life-changing? Get fit or lose some weight? How’s that going now? Hit your target? Thought not. Admittedly, you do have some pretty good excuses. Life hasn’t exactly been normal recently. Three months of lock-down and an economic crisis can really mess up your life plans. But, with the best will in the world, it’s pretty normal to fail at execution.
The same thing goes for businesses. Getting people to change is the real challenge of execution. You can come up with the most persuasive, jaw-dropping strategy in the world. But without total buy-in from your staff, it’s likely to wither and die.
When I visit businesses for the first time and talk to people, I know exactly what they’re going to tell me. There are three things that are always true. One – nobody praises them enough for a job well done. Two – they don’t know what’s going on most of the time. And three – management are always starting big initiatives and never finish them. Sound familiar?
So how do you overcome this and make execution more effective?
1. Communicate why things need to change
As with so many things in life, part of the solution is always better communication. People need to understand why change is necessary. I’ve recently trained as an NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) coach. Something interesting I learned was how motivation works. People are more motivated when they are drawn towards something rather than moving away. So rather than focusing on what you don’t want e.g. ‘I don’t want to be fat’, it’s better to re-frame this into, ‘I want to be fit and healthy’. An end goal where they can picture themselves reaping the rewards of their efforts.
This is why I always start by working out BHAG and purpose. Defining the long-range intention of your business and working out how to frame it in a way that motivates you and your staff. It should be something in the future that you’re drawn towards. Not, ‘I want to be 10% more profitable in three years’ time’. That’s a poor driver. Instead, finding your emotive ‘Why?’ The thing that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Staying with the fitness analogy, it’s working out what you’d do if you were fitter. Maybe you’d run a marathon and, at the same time, raise money for the hospice that cared so brilliantly for your Aunty Peggy. There we have it. An emotional goal that’s less about you and more about other people. Work out a BHAG that’s for the gain of your customers and, once you’ve defined it, communicate it as widely as you can. Get people fired up with your vision. And make a public commitment that this is where you’re heading.
2. Focus on specific, individual goals
It’s easy for you, as CEO, to say ‘This is the grand plan’. This is where we’re heading and this is what we’re going to do. It’s another thing to relate this to the individual. People need to see the impact that they personally can have. They need specific goals that directly link to your purpose and BHAG.
Every member of staff needs to think about what they do and what they don’t do. At this point, I always recommend using a job scorecard. It does what it says on the tin. It will help your business get to the nitty-gritty of people’s jobs, revealing the things that have a direct impact on purpose and BHAG. As opposed to their usual ‘busy work’. Go through this and, by the end, every member of staff will have a clear idea of what a good day looks like in their job.
I’ve said this before, but I don’t believe people come to work thinking ‘I’m going to have a sh*t day today’. Most people would prefer to feel like they’ve achieved something. That’s why tools like ‘FridayPulse’ are so useful as they’ll take the temperature in your business and tell you when engagement levels are low. If people are unhappy, it’s usually because they feel like they haven’t made an impact. So you need to make it crystal clear to them what they need to do to feel like they’ve had an ‘A’ Day.
So much effort is lost in ‘busy work’. We live in a high octane, hectic world full of distraction. Deciding on a company-wide policy of time-blocking can be really useful here. Once you’ve worked out the critical work that has an impact, make sure time is allowed for this. And this applies to you as well as everyone else. When I do workshops with clients, one of the exercises is helping CEOs find time for strategy. Strategy is next year’s profit – it simply must be given the time it needs.
3. Make goals realistic
Here’s a truism for you. The less you try to accomplish, the more you’re likely to be successful. So when goal setting, you need to be realistic. What are the fewer things that you can commit to completing? This is where the 3HAG (Three Year Highly Achievable Goal) process can help. It centres on coming up with three to five overall differentiated priorities for the next three years. Then it breaks these down into three to five priorities for the next year and 90 days. It’s as important to understand what you’re not going to do here as what you are.
The keyword here is realistic. Back to the fitness analogy. If you can only do five press-ups, don’t set yourself a target of 20 per day. Otherwise, you’re going to feel like a failure. And give up too quickly. By all means, have a stretch goal of 50 press-ups but make it for a point well into the future. Work out a realistic target for today that you’d be happy to hit.
I’ve worked with underperforming sales teams in the past and, when setting the first goal, we’ve had to slash quotas to the point that the immediate target is obtainable by everyone. Once they’ve hit it, we put the quota up a fraction. They hit it again and so it builds. Make it so that everyone can win at the beginning. Then celebrate success. Don’t skip this vital step. It’s important for motivation. So often I see organisations who haven’t set goals at an achievable level and that way lies misery for everyone.
4. Motivate by keeping score
As well as setting unachievable goals, businesses often overlook the importance of keeping score. Coming up with the right metrics is key to motivation. If you have priorities, you need to work out what you’re going to measure to show you’re making progress.
This applies at an organisational level as well as at an individual level. The 3HAG process will bring clarity. As a general rule, I help businesses work out their non-fiscal numbers or widgets. We’re not focusing on revenue as Finance can take weeks to give financial results from the previous month. Instead, we look for particular units of production or sale that can be tracked and measured to show progress. These could be the number of days, or servers, or customer – anything that can be used as an indicator.
Once we’ve done this, we work out individual metrics or KPIs (again, using the job scorecard). Once they have this, your staff will know instantly whether they’ve had a good day. It will be easy for them to measure their contribution to your overall priorities. Make sure they know and can see their individual number, whatever that might be. For example, at Rackspace, our sales team set themselves a goal of spending three hours per day on the phone. They set up an automated scoreboard that showed individual and team progress towards this goal, so people could compare themselves with others and feel a collective sense of achievement when the team succeeded.
Ultimately, if you want people to win, you need to make it clear to them what winning looks like. And give them the data so when they know they’re losing, they can do something about it. If you play a team sport, you get that feedback all the time. And yet in business, which is also arguably a team sport, we expect people to be amazing in the dark with no point of reference.
5. Establish accountability
Your managers shouldn’t have to beg, cajole and threaten staff to do their jobs. This comes back to whether your people are ‘A Players’. If they’re at the top of their game, they’ll naturally be proactive. When they get their data or their feedback, they’ll own their metric and their progress entirely. Managers need to get away from command and control and towards being coaches.
There are many ways to build accountability in a business – I’ve written about them before. But if you haven’t got the right people on the bus in the first place, you’ll find it hard to get the ownership you need.
The team is your unit of operation. If someone is a good cultural fit, my experience is the team will work hard to pull that individual over the line. Ultimately, if you set people an achievable, realistic number and gradually increase it, you’ll see who you need to keep and who needs to go. If an individual can’t keep up with the new pace, no matter what coaching or support is in place, they’re not the right fit. Remember, if one person in a Formula 1 pit crew has an off day, the time taken to change a tyre goes up by 100%.
I don’t think you can make people accountable. If they care about your BHAG and your purpose, they’ll do this instinctively. Build a culture where it’s crystal clear to every member of staff that they’re working in the right place (the Culture Canvas can help to keep you on track with this). You shouldn’t need to fire people. People should fire themselves.
And when you’re coming up with a framework for accountability, remember it starts at the top. Your executive team need to hold you accountable as CEO. You need KPIs, as do the rest of the senior team and these should be visible to the whole organisation. Use the scorecard to work these out. What are the KPIs that, a year from now, will make you and the rest of your team exceptional in your roles? Then commit to them together. This is how you make steady progress towards an end result.