Execution must be built into culture

Jonathan Mills
3 min readApr 9, 2023

“When a culture adopts ‘what’s the next action?’ as a standard operating query, there’s an automatic increase in energy, productivity, clarity, and focus” (David Allen — Getting Things Done)

Strategy execution isn’t a module or programme that you add on to an organisation but rather a discipline that you build into the organisation’s culture. Execution must be embedded in the reward and recognition systems and in the norms of behaviour that everyone practises. As Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan (Execution — the Discipline of Getting Things Done) suggest: “Focusing on execution is not only an essential part of a business’s culture, but also the one sure way to create meaningful cultural change”. Execution that exists apart from culture becomes a “must do” rather than a “want to do” part of the organisation’s behaviour. “Must do” typically has to be “snooper-vised” or micro-managed. “Want to do” requires little input from superiors apart from collaborative evaluation of results.

Similar to Six Sigma or other continual improvement processes, employees and managers who practice this methodology look for deviations from desired tolerances. When they find them, they move quickly to correct the problem. Bossidy and Charan note importantly: “They use these processes to constantly raise the bar, improving quality and throughput. They use them collaboratively across units to improve how processes work across the organisation. It’s a relentless pursuit of reality, coupled with processes for constant improvement. And it’s a huge change in behaviour — a change, really, in culture”.

Leaders who execute look for deviations from desired managerial tolerances — the gap between the desired and actual outcome in everything from profit margins to the selection of people for promotion. Then they move to close the gap and raise the bar still higher across the whole organisation. Bossidy and Charan continue: “Like Six Sigma, the discipline of execution doesn’t work unless people are schooled in it and practise it constantly; it doesn’t work if only a few people in the system practise it. Execution has to be part of an organisation’s culture, driving the behaviour of all leaders at all levels”.

Execution must be built into the culture. David Allen insightfully notes: “I have a personal mission to make ‘What’s the next action?’ part of the global thought process. I envision a world in which no meeting will end, and no interaction cease, without a clear determination of whether or not some action is needed — and if it is, what it will be, or at least who has responsibility for it. I envision organisations adopting a standard that anything that lands in anyone’s ‘ten acres’ will be evaluated for action required, and the resulting decisions managed appropriately. Imagine the freedom that would allow to focus attention on bigger issues and opportunities”.

There seems to be an extraordinary shift in energy, productivity, and execution whenever a culture is developed that asks the question — “what’s the next action?” — as a fundamental and consistently asked question. The discipline of execution must be built into the culture.

Originally published at https://www.stretchforgrowth.com on April 9, 2023.

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Jonathan Mills

Jonathan has spent over 30 years focusing his efforts on developing people throughout the world. He believes that people have the most impact when stretched.