Taming the Whirlwind

Organizational Transformation

In the 4 Disciplines of Execution, Chris McChesney, Jim Huling, and Sean Covey address one of the biggest challenges in organizational life: spending too much of our time keeping the plates spinning and not having time to produce significant improvements and outcomes. They call keeping all the daily operations afloat the “whirlwind.” The term doesn’t sound like a very desirable way to spend our time. They argue the whirlwind is both necessary and keeps us from making the breakthroughs every organization desires. If the authors are correct, they raise an important question of how jobs get structured, how leaders communicate what work needs to be done, and how that work should be done.

It is hard to believe that when managers contemplate the best way for the organization to function, they intentionally structure jobs and teams to neglect the most productive activities. A more likely cause is that human nature individually and collectively tends to stray from the ideal design of how work gets done. All the usual suspects like procrastination, lack of goal clarity, the tyranny of the urgent, bureaucratic procedures, inefficient meetings, and personality conflicts come to mind.

Given the difficulty of addressing all the behavioral issues that come with those challenges, the authors propose a process that recognizes the necessities of the whirlwind and carves out time from our regular daily tasks. This allows a focus on what we need to do differently.

The starting point is determining “Wildly Important Goals” (WIGS). The implication is that whirlwind activities are largely without goals, or the goals established don’t naturally connect to significant improvements. One would think senior leaders would establish goals that drive how at least some of the whirlwind activities are performed so improvement and breakthroughs happen. However, experience tells us that too often job descriptions and performance measures seek efficiencies over effectiveness. Additionally, individuals and teams often have limited input into the broad “whirlwind” goals and even into how their work is organized and implemented.

An important element in the recommended goal-setting process is that teams select their own goals. While they do say senior leaders can veto the goals if they don’t align with organizational ones, it is the teams that must keep working until they identify the right goals they will commit to. The desire is to create ownership of goals that will stretch the team and demand everyone’s best effort and thinking.

The second discipline, “Act on Lead Measures” applies the principle of identifying leading measures that are predictive rather than lagging measures that report what has already happened. Leading measures need to be ones the team can influence. For example, scheduled sales calls or safety trainings are the critical activities that lead to success. While this is certainly important to achieving “wildly important goals,” this same approach should be applied to achieving almost any goal. The lead measures framework ensures we understand what drives success in any endeavor. It both guides our thinking on what actions need to be priorities and also gives us a way to measure progress. This information validates our assumptions and provides feedback. As the authors point out, determining lead measures is not always an easy process. Similar to identifying the right “wildly important goals,” it requires an investment of the team’s time.

The third and fourth disciplines again are proven approaches to high performance. We all do better when we know how we are progressing against the goal and therefore need a scoreboard. According to the authors, a “Compelling Scoreboard” (the 3rd discipline) shows performance in real-time so I know if I am winning or not. This reflects the importance of leading indicators that can show what is happening in real-time allowing us to make needed adjustments.

The fourth discipline, “A Cadence of Accountability” focuses on execution and holding regular meetings to reinforce commitments and learn from each other. Just like we do better when we know the score, we all tend to perform at a higher level when someone is depending on the work we deliver. Accountability in its negative form is simply an arbitrary practice where a manager enforces a rigid reporting process to comply with organizational bureaucracy. In its positive form, accountability communicates that you are a valuable contributor and your commitment to complete the task is needed. This creates strong internal motivation not to let the team down. The rhythm of short, weekly team meetings keeps the team connected and each person engaged. Accountability becomes a natural element of the way the team operates.

The process of the four disciplines aligns with what we know about changing behaviors. We need the focus of the “WIGS,” the clarity of the lead measures, the motivation of a compelling scorecard, and the connection and commitment of accountability. Pursuing ambitious goals is hard but often provides the needed urgency to change behaviors both individually and collectively. Those same principles can be used to make the whirlwind less of a neutral or negative impact on performance. Ideally, the improvements and lessons learned from the 4 Disciplines of Execution approach are integrated into the whirlwind making our daily tasks more efficient and effective.