Implementing with The 4 Disciplines of Execution

Today, we’re going to discuss and learn the importance of creating strategic plans and moving them into action using a specific framework to ensure that those plans don’t gather dust.


Pieta Blakely 0:01

Welcome back to our series on implementation. Today, we’re talking with our friend Liz O’Connor, founder and principal of Strategy Matters. Liz, and her team specialize in helping mission-based organizations create strategic plans and move them into action. They’ve been using a very specific framework to help make sure that those plans don’t gather dust. Today, we’re going to learn about that approach, and why it’s so important.

CTMM Jingle 0:30

Pieta Blakely 0:55

Good morning, everybody. Welcome to Coffee Time with Masterminds. I want to welcome our viewers and listeners in the United States, in Australia, and around the world. If you’re joining us live, please drop us a note in the comments and let us know where you’re joining us from. I want to introduce my colleague, Cynthia. Good morning, Cynthia

Cynthia Rojas 1:13

Hi, Pieta. How are you

Pieta Blakely 1:16

Good. Thank you. How are you?

Cynthia Rojas 1:18

I’m good. I’m really good. Excited about today.

Pieta Blakely 1:22

I’m also going to bring into the studio, our friend, Liz. Good morning, Liz.

Liz O’Connor 1:29

Good morning. How are you?

Cynthia Rojas 1:31


Pieta Blakely 1:32

Thank you for joining us.

Cynthia Rojas 1:33

Hi, Liz.

Liz O’Connor 1:35

Hi, Cynthia. Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to join both of you again.

Cynthia Rojas 1:39

Thank you.

Pieta Blakely 1:42

So, Liz you and your team work with mission-based organizations, particularly around strategic planning. What do you see as some of the big obstacles in moving those plans into action?

Liz O’Connor 1:53
There are so many, and as you pose this question, I thought about the most common. I think the most common barrier to moving from a successful planning process to a successful implementation is one of two things. One, is your plan is too big, which is to say, it’s big and aspirational and it is lacking, specificity so you don’t know what to do with it. You know, we want to solve poverty and hunger, and no one knows sort of where to begin. The other version is that it’s too small and maybe you start with these big ideas. And then, work down to a tiny little spreadsheet with every action step mapped out and dates and who’s going to do it. It’s a spreadsheet that no one ever looks at except on the day it’s time to report on the implementation of the plan.

And, we back up and scramble and say, “oh my gosh, I didn’t do that.” So, both of these things, kind of miss the point about how most of us organize our time and figure out how to spend our day, because at the bottom of implementation. Implementation is simply making some choices about what you’re going to do with your day. And so, how can an implementation plan influence those choices, is the question I think one has to ask when you’re pivoting from planning to implementation.

Pieta Blakely 3:12
I mean, this seems so obvious, but it is completely omitted from every planning process. So, when I get to work tomorrow, what am I going to do that’s different.

Liz O’Connor 3:25
Exactly. I think, there’s another sort of process step that a lot of planning processes omit. Which is, if you’ve gone through the process and laid out a bunch of things that you want to do that you’ve never done before unless you were only working, say, at 10 or 20 percent of your capacity. You don’t have time to do all those things starting now. So, you’re going to get rid of some of the old stuff, or integrate the new stuff into what you’re already doing. Those are really the only two choices if you were already occupied full-time, which most of us are.

Pieta Blakely 4:01
And we are all occupied full-time, right.

Liz O’Connor 4:04

Pieta Blakely 4:05
Yeah. So, it’s not just that I don’t specifically know what I’m supposed to do tomorrow; that’s different. It’s also like I’ve already got an entire day’s worth of tasks and responsibility tomorrow and I’m not even going to sit here and think about it. I’m just getting to work.

Liz O’Connor 4:24
Right, and I think, another implementation problem which is related to some of these is somebody’s understanding of what that plan is there to do. So, in the event that an organization has a plan and the staff thinks. Well, that’s just a plan because the board made us do it, or the funders want to have it, or we had to check that box, but it doesn’t really mean anything to me.

Pieta Blakely 4:47
Even every five years that we’ve done it

Liz O’Connor 4:50
Right. So, you know, it, it’s really easy to ignore in that case. It’s not even a meaningful
document. But even the ones that are widely understood to be meaningful and important can sometimes get lost in the shuffle if implementation isn’t built in at the very beginning, as a priority. The plan has to be built to be able to be implemented, I think.

Pieta Blakely 5:11
So, how do you do that? Your organization uses a very specific approach. Tell us about that.

Liz O’Connor 5:20
Sure, and I want to start by saying, we use it and it’s not ours. It’s from the Cubby companies. It’s called The Four Discipline of Execution. I got it from a client. Actually, I had a client and he read this book, and he called me, like, hysterical. “Liz, you got to read this book. You’re going to love this book. You’ll never be the same. You’ll never do anything the same.” Now, this guy was a pretty enthusiastic guy, in general and he was frequently using this kind of excitable voice. In this particular case, he also said the same thing about Twitter, which he was wrong on Twitter.

 I don’t love twitter. I do love The Four Discipline of Execution. And, the reason I love it is, it actually solves all of those problems I just mentioned. There you go. That’s the bible of implementation. Important to note that this book was written not by somebody sort of divining a strategy for how to implement, but rather they studied. They studied implementation in different contexts and what they did was look around at organizations and say who’s good at implementing plans and who’s not. And, of those who are good at implementation, what are they doing.

 They found only four things in common. So, as a facilitator, some of you out there probably use a similar method. It’s often referred to as appreciative inquiry, and looking at the sort of when things are working, what’s happening, and let’s do more of that. So, they used an appreciative inquiry approach and they learned about these four disciplines. They’re quite simple, and the beauty in my mind of the four disciplines is that you actually don’t need to write down everything you’re going to do in your plan. You need to make some commitments and have some priorities and then everyone can organize themselves around those priorities. So, it probably makes sense to explain what the four disciplines are and how they work.

Pieta Blakely 7:09
Yes, I’ll have to get my copy of the book. I don’t remember where they are. I remember the last one, a cadence of accountability. That’s obviously my favorite.

Liz O’Connor 7:20
Right, and also the word cadence is just fun to say. But the first discipline is, Identify Your Wildly Important Goals. The way I’ve come to put a shorthand on that is, those are the things that if you cannot accomplish them in your organization, you should shut it down and do something else. You know, in your restaurant, serving delicious high-quality food that people will buy. If you can’t do that, you don’t have a restaurant. So, that is your wildly important goal. You know, we use this in Strategy Matters. For us, we have to. Do great client work, and run a successful great company. By great, I mean, pay people well, have people be happy here. Great means a lot of things. But all I really want to do is great client work and run a great company. And if I can do those two things, if we as a community here can do those two things, it’s worth doing. The day we can’t do one of those things is the day I should hang up and close the door, go home, and find a job as a waiter somewhere. Because restaurants are doing their wildly important job.

Pieta Blakely 8:27
For reference, Liz, has actually been a server.

Liz O’Connor 8:30
Many years

Pieta Blakely 8:33
What I hear she was the world’s worst server.

Liz O’Connor 8:37
Yeah, but the source is biased, says my husband. I made a ton of money, as a server.
I don’t know what he’s talking about. Actually, I do know what he’s like. He was the cook in the kitchen where I was the server, and he didn’t like how long I would leave the pasta dishes under the heat lamp. So, we have to do great client work and run a great company, and then our clients, for example. One of our clients is a transit authority. What do they have to do, they have to run safe reliable transportation, period. And, if they can’t do that, they should not be in that business. So, that’s like, what wildly important goals

Wildly important goals are also different from your goals, and your strategic plan. They’re not, those are annual goals. They might change over time, but your wildly important goals, that’s what you’re about. It’s your core purpose as an organization. The second discipline is to have a very public-facing dashboard and scoreboard of data. So, these are more commonly referred to as key performance indicators or leading and lagging indicators of success. Yeah, excuse me, go ahead, Cynthia.

Cynthia Rojas 9:58
No, I was agreeing. KPICS.

Liz O’Connor 10:01
Yeah. The four disciplines require that you think about them in two different types. One, is leading indicators of your success, and the other is, lagging. So, the way to think about this is some data tells you that you’re on the right track to accomplish something. And some data tells you that you already have in the past accomplished it. So, when I say I want to do great client work right. One leading indicator of doing great client work is that I understand clearly what my clients are asking me to do. I can’t do great client work if we have miscommunication. But I know that if we have strong communication, my chances of being able to formulate our consulting work to their needs are high. So, that would be a leading indicator of success.

Pieta Blakely 10:45
Let’s talk a little bit about like, why. I think that, one, is so important that we’ve talked about, we set these really lofty goals. And we talk about where the organization’s going to be at the end of the year, or the end of five years, but we don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing right now. Those leading indicators ideally, are so small that it’s like, did I do that thing this week. It’s so clearly defined that I can check it off like the unit of measure should be a check mark or not, right. You know, if it’s wishing washy, you’re probably not doing it right.

Liz O’Connor 11:27
Exactly, like fundraisers know this, right. You need it, what is it? 12 non-asks every year in addition to your ask. That would be a leading indicator of success as a fundraiser is actually just having done those 12 touch points or contacts without asking for money. I think fundraisers actually are very good at leading indicators of success because they know if I do x, y, and z, today. In a year, I will get a gift, and getting the gift is the lagging indicator of success. So, we think of that in this, in this framework as your dashboard, those are your leading indicators and your scoreboard, and that strategy matters. Our dashboard includes things like, how many of our clients’ projects are on time and on budget. And that is a piece of data that’s really helpful for a variety of reasons, right. Clients are happier when it’s on time, and on budget.

So, that’s going to be great client work. Consultants are happier because their schedules are staying sane. Cash flow is better because we build by milestones. So, that one data point is telling me a whole lot about the health of the company and how I’m doing in relation to my wildly important goals. Just, you know, one small data point. I don’t need 15. Now, one of my most important lagging indicators of success is my client return and referral rate. So that again, will tell me a lot about, you know, nobody refers a consultant that they thought did bad work.

If somebody gives someone else my name, generally, that means they were satisfied enough to put their own social capital on the line to make them real. And it also means it’s good for business, right. I’m getting new business from that referral so, it’s good for cash flow, and it’s good for morale because my team knows that we’ve been recommended. That feels better than, say, going knocking on doors saying, could you please hire us.

Pieta Blakely 13:26
So, it’s a lot higher.

Liz O’Connor 13:30
Yeah, and then, the next discipline of execution is, Act on the Leading Indicators. So, what that means is when your data points are telling you that things are not going as you planned, do something differently. If I were to find out, for example, that all my projects were on time and on budget, but my clients were still really unhappy. I would have to say I’m using the wrong data. This is not telling me what I thought it was going to do, or we generally, have 25 projects at a time. If I looked at my 25 projects, and saw that half of them were off track and off budget. I would say, what’s going on around here.

 Let’s do something. Do we need to hire some more people. Do we need to change our timelines and renegotiate them with our clients. We have to do something because we can’t have half of our projects off track and off budget because that’s going to lead to other problems. So, the minute we would see that our leading indicators, were pointing to a problem. We would do something, and that’s a discipline because ignoring it and waiting to see what happens is a disaster. And the last one is Pieta’s favorite, The Cadence of Accountability. They’re very strict in the book about this and I’ve been very strict in my use of it. You have to have a meeting.

The interval might vary, but a specific meeting where everybody looks at the same data, the dashboard, and the scoreboard. And tries to figure out what it’s telling us, and what we need to do as a result, and then make some commitments to move the data in the right direction. Commitments have to be as you said Pieta, like, small enough to be done. So, here at Strategy Matters, we do this once a week. It takes about 20 minutes and there’s no other agenda items. This is very important. The idea is that you’re only focused on those wildly important goals, and how you’re doing in relation to them. So, we talk about how many of our projects are off track or off-budget. How are our clients feeling. How are consultants feeling. For us, a big leading indicator of good work is happy consultants, right.

The team is happy they’re doing great work, so we spend 10 minutes a week asking how happy is everybody this week. And, if somebody says I’m really miserable. My mother is sick, and my daughter is tired, and schools are closed from the pandemic, and I’m really stressed out. We don’t say, well, hurry up and get back to work because cash flow needs you. What we generally say is how can we help and what’s in your portfolio that we can take off your shoulders. And that becomes a commitment for the week. Somebody says, “In service to a client, you know, consultant happiness.” I’m
going to take some of Liz’s work off of her shoulders.

Pieta Blakely 16:12
This is an important part of what accountability means here. I think a lot of people react really negatively to the word accountability, and it’s an opportunity to get in trouble. That’s not what you mean here, right. You need to be honest about the barriers that you’re having in getting this accomplished because we will help you. We’re all accountable for getting this done. That’s a very different kind of accountability.

Liz O’Connor 16:41
Yes, that’s right. It’s funny because one of our, sort of perpetual problems around here
is the difference in work styles. We have nine people. Some of them are really good with calendars, deadlines, appointments, timelines, and some of them, like, myself, are not. And so, when I’m working on something, it tends to be a little chaotic. My colleagues will say to me. “You know, this is a problem for me personally, because it irritates me and it derails my own work.” But it’s also a problem for our client’s well-being because our clients don’t know what to expect.

When they’re going to get what you told them they’re going to get, or they don’t know why you’re taking them in this direction so that direction. So, someone can bring to me a challenge like that and it can have multiple layers and it helps me to see how to solve it. Because I might not be able to solve my whole personality, but I can solve the part of it that’s getting in the way of the work going smoothly, and I can see the reasoning for it. It takes it from something like a personal and interpersonal conflict to kind of the level of substance in our work together, and it’s much more solvable there, I think.

Cynthia Rojas 17:46
So, I have a question. I’m trying to think of an example to really see this in action in the four disciplines. Strategic plans are about creating pathways or creating clear directions moving forward. Oftentimes, it does shake an organization up, and so, there are new behaviors. There are new things to work on and it could be too much, especially if you’re also operational just the day-to-day. I think, the four disciplines are great, and I love them too. But how do we focus on our wildly important goals, when we also have to implement three new initiatives because we got federal funding.

Liz O’Connor 18:48
Yeah. I think, honestly, this is a bit of a trick is to make sure that funding doesn’t undermine, and in fact, supports your wildly important goals. You know, that’s really easy to say, I’m not leading a non-profit and no federal agency has waived five million dollars at me if I would only do what they want instead of what I know I need to do. So, I’m aware of the complexity of that statement. However, if there isn’t a way to make the grant funding, support your wildly important goals. You’re about to create a whole new set of problems that the money will not cover.

Pieta Blakely 19:32
Yeah, and that’s where a lot of mission-creek comes from, but it’s a very different way of thinking about funding.

Liz O’Connor 19:42
It is, and I mean, in another sort of line of advising. My advice to non-profits often is, don’t be so certain that they won’t listen to you if you tell them you want to. Do it a different way than they’re telling you. If you can make your case, often, they do have the flexibility, even government funders. They don’t often lead with, I’m flexible, tell me how you want to do this. But if you say we really do want to work with you, here’s how we need to do it for alignment and our strategic plan. There’s a chance that they will let you do it.

Pieta Blakely 20:16
Yes. I mean, this is something that we’ve talked about on the show a lot and in a lot of different ways is, staying in your lane. Focusing on your organization’s strengths, and
not trying to do everything. In fact, focusing on effectively partnering with other organizations that might be better at doing a thing, rather than trying to expand your own operations to cover something that’s not really your area of strength, right.

You know, the way I look at it is like if we’re all creating thriving communities, then, there’s a role for all of us. The best way to support another mission-based organization in the field might be to direct funding to them, rather than compete with them and take
the funding. If they’re going to be more effective on it.

Liz O’Connor 21:07
Right, and to do that you need to be clear on what your wildly important goals are, and what they’re not, right. So, one of the important goals in that case has something to do with creating thriving communities, and not in being the biggest, most well-funded non-profit. And, I always thought that the day that you say, having more money is your goal. You have lost your way, right. It’s not that you shouldn’t have more money. You might need more money and maybe you should have.

Pieta Blakely 21:39
More money might increase your ability to build thriving communities, but it’s a means.

Liz O’Connor 21:46
Exactly, and so, that’s what the Four Disciplines will help you stay focused on. In fact, they have a word for all the things that you worry about that are not your wildly important goals and let the whirlwind. The meetings that you have for cadence of accountability are often referred to as your wig meetings, your wildly important meetings. You’ve got to keep the whirlwind out of your wig meetings because it’ll infect your ability to focus

Pieta Blakely 22:12

Cynthia Rojas 22:13
Can an organization have too many goals. Is that what potentially happens?
Because I work with a lot of organizations that are growing, and many of them are experiencing hyper growth. So, real acute increase in either budgets or demand or and they’re trying to build infrastructure, so, they need an HR Department. They need a finance, or they need someone who knows finances. And they need a new line of leadership, right. This is happening as growth has also occurred. And so, for some organizations, that’s a really tough position to be in. It’s a lot of change very fast. Could it be too much?

Liz O’Connor 23:05
I think it probably is too much if it isn’t subordinate to something else. You know, what they probably are saying is, we want to be an organization that has the capacity to do the things that we’ve promised we’re going to do. Maybe, we’ve got a 10 million-dollar Ford Foundation grant to create something in our community and we need to really staff up and build our infrastructure in order to support that. So, the wildly important goal in there is whatever Ford is funding you to do.

These are the leading indicators of your ability to do that, and once you put it in that way it can help clarify some decisions too. If the leading indicator is something like, we have enough people working here to meet our responsibilities. That’s not a number, but that is a question. So, on a weekly basis, one might say. “Okay, are we able to do what we need to do. Oh, no we’re not. Okay, what are we missing? We don’t have anybody to send out the invoices. Okay, well, is that something one of us can do, or is that something we need to hire for. But it’s not a blanket, we need to hire administrative staff because that’s not an end in itself. We need the capacity to be the kind of a team that can do this work that we said we were going to do, and now let’s have the conversation in that vein. So that the answer is really a way of saying here’s how we’re going to build the capacity to do the things we said we want to do.

Pieta Blakely 24:31
Yeah. This conversation is reminding me so much of how I find myself avoiding the word goal because there’s so much confusion about what a goal is. That goal could be the wig. A goal can be the vision, right. What’s it going to be like when we’re done, or as I put it, what is the state of well-being in the world that when we obtain that you all say, “Oh, we’re done here. We can go home”, versus, what is a milestone. And that kind of thing, really, it just muddies the waters, right. So, people get focused on, we’re going to serve our 100th participant, or we’re going to hire 12 administrative people. When that is a stepping stone, but it’s not. It’s not a central thing.

Liz O’Connor 25:33
Right. I think, a good way to remind people of that is to say like, when you leave work and you go off to a cocktail party, and you’re bragging about all of your accomplishments. Are you going to be bragging that you hired 12 people or that the 100th person walked over your threshold today. Or is it something bigger and more meaningful than that.
I think, you know, you get a little closer to what matters, when you think about what you are proud of, at the end of the day.

Cynthia Rojas 25:59
I love that, what matters is what we are proud of.

Pieta Blakely 26:05
I’m so glad that we’re talking about this today because it is the end of the quarter for me, and I need to do my planning and visioning for my business, for the half of the year. And I really needed to be reminded of articulating my wigs well and focusing on the indicators.

Liz O’Connor 26:24
What are you trying to accomplish? What are your big most important goals?

Pieta Blakely 26:30
More ease in my business. So, revenue with ease.

Liz O’Connor 26:36
Yeah, that’s a good one.

Cynthia Rojas 26:41
And I think we could take each of the disciplines and make them a show. I think, there definitely is a lot, and I’m always wanting to know. Well, let’s look at some examples and test this. I think, we should do another series and just focus.

Pieta Blakely 27:02
Just focus on the Four Disciplines. The culture of we’re going to openly talk about these things, and talk about them. I got a really interesting email, this week from somebody who was thinking about the problem of KPIs. And when you focus on a KPI without context and then, you end up with an organization that sometimes does the game, right. Let’s make the KPI happen without actually doing any of what it’s supposed to measure.

That’s how you end up with a bank that invents bank accounts, right, things like that. We have endless shows on where measures go wrong, and the downsides of KPIs. But this is one useful way of thinking about how you cannot just talk about your KPIs, by itself. It has to be in the context of, what are we actually doing here and why does it matter and how did we’re focusing on this thing advance the mission of the organization.

Liz O’Connor 28:10
Right, and I think, the best KPIs are the ones that don’t allow for cheating. Like, I think about education. The one thing I always wanted in education was student engagement. Student engagement is a tremendous indicator of success, right. I don’t need their test scores if they’re engaged, I know they’re learning. And their tests will take care of themselves, but if the test scores are the KPI, then we get all sorts of perverse outcomes. Especially, because we’re really good at making punishments for failing to meet the bar. And, if you think about that, that’s dragging everybody’s attention away from what we know will actually work for learning, which is student engagement. So, it’s the wrong measure, actually; it’s never neutral, right. It can do a lot of harm.

Pieta Blakely 29:01
The wrong measure can do a lot of harm. And I think, maybe this is something to talk about on another show. But I’m not even sure that there is a measure that is impervious to gaming. I think, once it gets isolated probably, anything can get manipulated about, right. We’ll talk about that on another show.

Cynthia Rojas 29:25
Yeah, that’s great.

Liz O’Connor 29:27
That’s what you thought.

Pieta Blakely 29:31
Well, thank you so much for joining us again.

Cynthia Rojas 29:33
That’s awesome

Liz O’Connor 29:35
Thank you so much for having me. It’s always a pleasure. I look forward to next time.
Take care, guys.
Pieta Blakely 29:41
Take care. Have a great weekend, everybody.

Liz O’Connor 29:43

Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

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