When Execution “Doesn’t Matter”

Did you ever hear the famous quote of Thomas Merton, “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”  What about Stephen Covey’s extension of that thought, “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.”

Execution is defined as the carrying out or putting into effect a plan, order, or course of action. In our example of the ladder, execution was not the problem. The tasks are getting done, the ladder is being climbed. The issue is with the wall the ladder is leaning on, i.e., the goal, target or outcome of those tasks.

Execution “doesn’t matter” then in two situations:

  • You execute the right steps and achieve the anticipated goal, only to realize you had the wrong goal from the get go, or
  • You successfully execute the steps you outlined, but their execution does not take you to the goal you anticipated that they would

In these two examples, execution doesn’t really matter, because it is not getting you to the right result. So how do you fix the problem?

There are two clear answers: first, make sure you have the right goal and second, make sure you have the right tasks to take you there.

First, the right goal: At PGS, an essential piece of our strategic planning process is establishing the vision.  Where do you want the organization to be, what do you want it to look like, in 15 – 20 years? Establishing a clear, specific vision is step one.  Then step back from that long term picture to where you want to be at the end of the next 1 – 3 years. What will be a clear demonstration that you are moving in the right direction toward your vision? That is setting the right goal. Assess your progress at the end of each year. Is accomplishing these short term goals truly moving you toward your long term vision?  If the answer is no, do a course correction to get back on track.

Second, the right tasks: You have your vision and your end goals, now it is time to define the specific tasks to get you there. Here is the key.  As you work on your tasks, track the progress you are making to your end goal. If the work you are doing is not getting you there, then you need to adjust your tasks. Always keep that end goal in sight, i.e., don’t get so busy in the “doing” that you fail to look up at where you are going.

An example: Years ago, a client had previously set a goal of helping more of its shareholders graduate from college. They established a scholarship program as well as activities center at a local university where students could come and hang out in an environment comfortable and familiar to them. The board was excited when telling us about it and had kept at it for several years. However, when asked for data on the number of graduates, they discovered that the number had not changed.  The goal was terrific, but the steps the board laid out to achieve it were not the ones that the students needed to be successful.

The moral? Absolutely set goals, absolutely outline the work needed to get there, and absolutely get busy doing the work. But check back regularly to make sure the progress you are making is in fact the progress you intended.

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