The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals
by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, Jim Huling, Scott Thele, and Beverly Walker
The premise of this book is that defining a strategy is easy, but executing it is difficult. And execution is made especially hard by what the authors call the “whirlwind” of daily activities necessary to keep the organization running. As always, urgency trumps importance. We need to elevate the importance of what the book calls “WIGs.” The one or two overarching, “wildly important goals” that would make all the difference in the world to your organization’s future and get your departments and teams to develop and focus on supporting WIGs.
The 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) provides a formula for giving your critical strategic priorities the attention they need–even amid the whirlwind and even when those priorities require a significant behavior change by your teams. Using the four disciplines—Focus on the Wildly Important, Act on Lead Measures, Keep a Compelling Scoreboard, and Create a Cadence of Accountability–you can stave off the whirlwind and produce breakthrough results.
The book is organized into four parts: The first describes the four disciplines, the second and third parts cover how to apply them–the role of top leaders and team leaders, respectively, and the fourth part discusses what to do next. In short, most of the book is about creating a culture that puts goal achievement front and center.
In the authors’ words: “4DX is not theory, but a proven set of principles and practices that have been tested and refined by hundreds of organizations and 126,000+ teams over many years. Although the disciplines may seem simple at first glance, they are not simplistic. They will profoundly change the way you approach your goals. [4DX] is an orderly pattern of conduct that leads to the achievement of an organizational goal with excellence. [It’s] an operating system for achieving results.”
About the Authors: Chris McChesney is the Global Practice Leader of Execution for FranklinCovey and has led the ongoing development of the 4DX for more than fifteen years. Sean Covey is President of FranklinCovey Education. Jim Huling is the Global Managing Consultant for 4DX at FranklinCovey. Scott Thele is the National Practice Leader for FranklinCovey’s Business Outcomes Practice, primarily applying the 4DX. Beverly Walker has used the 4DX to achieve results in large-scale challenges such as infant mortality, mental health, and child literacy as a commissioner for the State of Georgia and director for the State of Illinois.
This summary reflects my takeaways from a book I found useful and recommend to others. Reading a summary isn’t a substitute for reading the book. There’s much more than I can cover here. Plus, this is my interpretation. If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to get a copy from your favorite bookseller. Here are the Amazon links: e-book | Audiobook | Print
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes should be attributed to the book’s authors.
Many aspects of the 4DX process and discipline are similar to those of OKRs–Objectives and Key Results. You’ll find more on OKRs in my summary of Measure What Matters.
There’s a whirlwind affecting you and everyone who works for you every minute of every day. It’s the urgent activities and energy required to keep your organization going on a day-to-day basis. It’s also why new ideas are so challenging to execute.
It’s difficult to distinguish between the whirlwind and strategic goals in the moment. They are very different and constantly compete for our attention, time, energy, and resources.
When urgency and importance collide, urgency always wins. The consequences are enormous. When you get caught up in the whirlwind, you lose sight of the big ideas that will move your organization forward.
Successful execution requires balancing urgent whirlwind tasks with the attention and time needed for the organization’s most important goals. This is where the four disciplines come into play.
Discipline 1–Focus On The Wildly Important
Discipline 1 is about applying more energy against fewer goals because, when it comes to setting goals, the law of diminishing returns is as real as the law of gravity.
The first discipline is to zero in on the one or two “wildly important goals” that will make the most significant impact. Rather than spreading your efforts thin across dozens of objectives, you and your teams must focus to succeed. Without focus, you won’t get far with the other three disciplines.
A wildly important goal (WIG) “[is] a goal essential to carrying out the organization’s mission or strategy; failure to achieve this goal will render all other achievements secondary.”
Organization-level WIGs should be translated into the corresponding department- and team-level WIGs. Four rules:
- Teams should focus on at most two WIGs at the same time. This is imperative to maintain focus, which is critical to the success of the entire process.
- Lower-level WIGs ensure the success of higher-level WIGs. “Supporting” or “aligning” with the higher WIGs isn’t sufficient. Lower-level WIGs should help achieve WIGs at the next level up, ultimately the organization-level WIG.**
- Senior leaders can veto but not dictate WIGs. They define the top-level WIGs but allow each level to define and commit to its own WIGs.
- All WIGs at all levels must have a finish line and a deadline. WIGs should be expressed as a specific, measurable goal: from X to Y by when–a measurable result and a due date for achieving that result. This formula tracks movement from a current state (X) to a desired future state (Y) within a specific time frame.
Using these rules, a broad strategy can be quickly translated into clearly defined WIGs at all levels.
Four steps to define the wildly important:
- Brainstorm possible WIGs.
- Rank them by impact.
- Test your top ideas.
- Define the WIG.
- Start with a verb.
- Define the lag measure using the formula: from X to Y by when.
- Keep it simple, clear, and understandable.
- Focus on the “what,” not the “how.” Don’t complicate it with “how” language.
Challenges in defining WIGs:
- Saying “no” to good ideas. There will always be more ideas than the capacity to execute them.
- Resisting the pressure to make everything in the whirlwind a WIG.
Discipline 2–Act On The Lead Measures
Discipline 2 requires you to define the daily or weekly measures, the achievement of which will lead to the goal. Then, each day or week, your team identifies the most important actions that will drive those lead measures.
Lead measures are metrics or indicators of activities that drive or lead to the lag measure, which is the achievement of the goal.
- Are predictive–they measure something that leads to goal achievement.
- Are influenceable–they’re actions that you or your team have control over.
- Have leverage–they are the highest-impact actions. They’re the place to apply disproportionate energy.
- Demonstrate if you’ve achieved the goal.
- They are easy to measure but difficult to influence directly.
- Are expressed using From X to Y by When–from a current state to a future state within a specified time frame.
- Are after the fact. They reflect results from past performance.
Some actions will have more impact on achieving your WIGs than others. You should identify where you will get the most impact and apply maximum effort there.
Discipline 3–Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
People play differently when they are keeping score. The practice of visibly tracking key success measures on a goal [keeps teams] continually preoccupied with moving the measures on the scoreboard.
Increase engagement by creating a winnable game with a visible scoreboard. Be sure everyone knows the score and whether they are winning.
Keeping score raises the level of play and encourages people to take the action necessary to win. There is a remarkable difference in performance between a team that understands lead and lag as a concept and one that knows its score.
Scoreboards influence team performance because:
- It sends the message that winning is important.
- It helps offset the whirlwind’s urgency.
- It visually represents the team’s strategy.
A compelling scoreboard is:
- Simple. Displays only the information needed to play the game.
- Visible. Visibility drives accountability and usability.
- Relevant. Tracks both lead and lag measures.
- Obvious. You can tell if you’re winning or losing at a glance.
- Current. Updated regularly (weekly).
- Owned. The team was involved in creating it.
- Andon charts use colors to show whether a process is on track (green), heading off track (yellow), or off track entirely (red). They’re useful for tracking lead measures.
- Bar charts are useful for comparisons, such as comparing groups or teams.
- Speedometers are useful for speed or time-based measures (cycle time, process speed, time to market, retrieval times, etc.). Other common gauges are thermometers, pressure gauges, rulers, and scales.
- Trend lines link status at various times to spot the trend and project future status.
Discipline 4–Create a Cadence of Accountability
The practice of regularly and frequently planning and reporting on activities intended to move the measures on the WIG scoreboard. Work teams who practice Discipline 4 make individual and collective commitments and account for those commitments in weekly WIG Sessions.
Each team responsible for a WIG meets at least weekly in a “WIG Session.” This is where execution really happens.
If you hold yourself and others accountable, your goals will remain visible despite the whirlwind. Team members need to hold each other accountable regularly, rhythmically, and predictably. Performance must be reported on repeatedly for the system to become part of the culture.
WIG Session Rules: To maintain focus, everyone must follow these three rules for WIG Sessions:
- Hold them weekly on the same day and same time. Consistency is critical to maintaining performance.
- Don’t allow the whirlwind to intrude. Discussion should avoid urgent issues and purely focus on the actions that affect lead measures on the scoreboard.
- Keep them brief–twenty to thirty minutes long. Focus on moving items on the scoreboard to keep sessions efficient and effective.
WIG Session Agenda
- Account: Report on last week’s commitments.
- Review the scoreboard and learn from successes and failures.
- Plan: Clear the path and make commitments for the coming week.
Things to keep in mind:
4DX is easy to understand but requires sustained effort and commitment. The whirlwind isn’t going to disappear. It’s about using the disciplines to prioritize, focus and act on your most important goals alongside, sometimes despite, the whirlwind.
4DX has a logic. The more goals you have, the fewer you will achieve with excellence. To achieve a goal, focus on the lead measures that drive it, not the goal itself.
4DX is an operating system. The four disciplines work together in sequence. Once installed, you can use it to run almost any strategy you want, but you need the entire system to make it work.
Book details and where to buy it:
Get the book on Amazon: e-book | Audiobook | Print (affiliate links*)
Amazon rating: 4.6 out of 5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.1 out of 5 stars
Page count: 316
Publication date: April 20, 2021
Author website: The 4 Disciplines of Execution | FranklinCovey
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