Updated: Jan 3, 2021
A few years ago, I was on a course with the great business author and lecturer, Dr. Noah Barsky. I remember him saying it is easy to create a strategy; the hard part is implementing it.
Once a strategy has been set, the implementation phases are often left to individual teams to work out for themselves. For the actual implementation of a strategy, there are very few practical frameworks and processes. So, it's not surprising that the implementation of a strategy can be unstructured. For a functional framework to be effective, it should be flexible enough to allow for change, but tight enough to stop you from deviating from the original plan. For this reason, The Four Disciplines of Execution was created (or 4DX for short).
4DX is a set of rules and principles you can apply to any strategy, big or small, that will provide you with a structure to help you achieve your goals. The framework was developed by Sean Covey, Jim Huling, and Chris McChesney and is explained in their best-selling book The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals.
The four disciplines make up the core principles of this methodology, creating a framework you can follow: Discipline 1 - Focus on the really important goals
Discipline 2 - Act on Lead Measures
Discipline 3 - Keep a compelling scoreboard
Discipline 4 - Create a cadence of accountability
Discipline 1 - Focus on the Really Important Goals
In my experience, the number one reason for not achieving goals is that something more urgent to do is always available. Urgent doesn't necessarily mean more important but these tasks will often take priority over everything else. These urgent tasks are what keeps the company's core business going, and if you stop, the business will suffer. However, there is always the other side. The problem with this is if you focus only on the business, as usual, the company’s long-term goals take a back seat, and ultimately suffer as a result.
The great thing about 4DX is it acknowledges that working on future strategy is actually pretty tricky. It can be incredibly difficult to drop all regular responsibilities that make up most of your working day. According to 4DX, this day-to-day activity is referred to as the "whirlwind". The authors of 4DX are fully aware that the whirlwind is an essential part of your day, and that any work on future strategies need to fit around this whirlwind. However, Discipline 1 also dictates that the whirlwind and strategy should always be kept separate. Never attempt to combine the two otherwise the whirlwind will still triumph over the long-term goals.
The other major component of Discipline 1 is the Wildly Important Goals (WIGs). When creating a strategy, it can be very tempting to try and tackle everything at once. This is particularly true if your business is new and you need to focus on multiple areas at the same time. The danger with taking on too much is that you end up casting your net too wide and achieving very little. You can get so overwhelmed that it becomes difficult to concentrate on anything. So, 4DX suggests that you work on just one or two WIGs at a time.
Discipline 2 - Act on Lead Measures
When implementing a strategy, it can be difficult to know if you are genuinely making positive progress and whether your efforts are going in the right direction. To help with this, 4DX distinguishes between what it calls Lead and Lag Measures. A Lead Measure is a target on which you can have a direct influence. For example, if I'm trying to lose a stone in weight, my Lead Measure could be to exercise for at least 30 minutes three times a week. I have direct control over my decision to complete this target each week, as it is not influenced by any external force. More to the point, every time I achieve this target, I get closer to my ultimate goal, which is to lose a stone in weight (known as the Lag Measure). The theory is that if you carry out all your Lead Measures, then achieving the Lag Measure will naturally follow.
The official 4DX definition of a Lead Measure is a measure that "...tracks the critical activities that drive, or Lead to the Lag Measure." In addition, choosing the correct measures can be a deciding factor in whether you will be successful.
In a business setting, scheduling three sales meetings per week could be an example of a Lead Measure. If your ultimate goal is to increase sales revenue, then setting up these meetings should directly influence the result (the Lag Measure).
Creating good Lead Measures will determine how likely you are to succeed. The best advice for building Lead Measures is that they must be winnable. This means that you should be able to achieve them, without any help from other people. The reason is that as soon as you are reliant on other people's input, the goal isn't fully within your control. So, when constructing your Lead Measures, always ask yourself whether you can achieve them without any input from others.
Discipline 3 - Keep A Compelling Scoreboard
Once you have created your Lead and Lag Measures, you need a way of keeping track of them. In 4DX, this is done using a scoreboard that shows your targets and actual achievements.
The 4DX recommendation is that the scoreboard should be "compelling". What this exactly means is open to interpretation. It needs to be simple, easy to understand, and ideally fun. The most important factor is that it should be clear whether you are winning or losing. It doesn't matter whether the scoreboard is created in Excel, on a piece of paper, or out of Lego. It should be quick and easy to update. The 4DX method wants you to spend as little time as possible keeping the scoreboards up to date, so you can spend as much time as possible achieving the goals.
Discipline 4 - Create A Cadence of Accountability
The Cadence of Accountability is the part of the process that helps you and the rest of the team check in to see how you are all doing. It is the glue that holds all other elements of 4DX together.
At the centre of Discipline 4 is a weekly meeting comprising three distinct sections:
1. Target Commitments - for 4DX to work effectively, you need to commit to achieving certain targets. During the meeting each week, everyone will tell the group their planned targets for the following week.
There are two ways the weekly targets can be managed. You either have static targets which means having the same target for each measure every week. Or you can have dynamic targets which allow you to change the targets each week. So, if one of your measures is to send contracts to clients, you may commit to sending two contracts one week, and three the next week.
2. Reporting on Commitments - this part of the meeting requires everyone to give feedback on whether they achieved their weekly target. For example, in the previous week, if you had committed to contacting three clients, this is where we find out if you achieved the target. The scores are recorded which feed through to the scoreboard.
3. Review of the Scoreboard - once all the scores for the week are recorded, you can review the scoreboard. For each of the Lead Measures, this should immediately show you whether you are hitting your targets. However, corrective adjustments can be made if you are not hitting your targets.
As you can see, 4DX is a very simple system. And the simplicity is its strength. It's very easy to follow and focuses purely on the results. The most difficult part of 4DX is the preparation, particularly defining the Lead Measures. You need to ensure that whatever targets you create, they must, as much as possible, be achievable with minimal external input. Once you have got this right, you can follow the 4DX process in the knowledge that positive results should come.
When I started implementing the 4DX principle for the first time, I was slightly sceptical as to its effectiveness. It felt restrictive, overly rule-based, and inflexible. Often, the weekly meeting did not run smoothly and appeared disjointed. Recall that I have mentioned earlier that the weekly meeting is the glue that holds all other elements of 4DX together. So, when the meeting did not go well, it affected the rest of the 4DX system.
We decided to make a few small adjustments to the meeting, which resulted in the 4DX methodology blossoming into an extremely powerful framework. The meetings suddenly became very effective at keeping everyone accountable for their targets. And most importantly, we began to achieve our goals; it was hugely motivational each week to see small successes creating large results.
What I particularly like about 4DX is the approach it uses for targets; specifically, the concept of Lead Measures. The principle that only setting goals that are fully within your own control, is very powerful; success or failure is not influenced by any external factors. So, the more effort you put in, the more success you get out.
Overall, I think 4DX is an excellent methodology. Of course, the process can't guarantee success, but when implemented correctly, it will significantly increase your chances of winning.
There are however a couple of improvements I would make:
First, one thing that isn't apparent in the book "The Four Disciplines of Execution" is that there is any flexibility in the 4DX framework. This of course doesn't stop you from adapting it to your own requirements. However, modifying the system doesn't feel as if it is encouraged. For me, the book suggests that as long as you stick rigidly to rules, then you will succeed in your WIGs. Although this won't always be true, my recommendation is if something isn't working, tailor it to your needs.
Second, I feel that in the wrong hands, the cadence of accountability can be problematic. This rule is a core element of 4DX and we are assured that it brings the team together, all striving towards the same goals. However, there is a danger; it could have the opposite effect and cause competition within the team. Healthy competition within a team can be a great motivational tool. But when the competition is formalised and each individual is seen as either winning or failing, then this competition could lead to irritation, or worse, resentment.
Finally, I have seen people saying that 4DX is too focussed on goal achievement. This may seem a strange criticism, but I can understand their viewpoint. Each week, you are working towards your Lead Measure targets in preparation for the weekly meeting, where you have to report on your progress. If your focus is solely on hitting the Lead Measure targets, you may miss external factors that should influence your overall strategy. When driving a car, if you are focussed on only looking straight ahead, you won't see everything else going on around you. Most of the time, this will be fine, but there may be times when you do need to shift focus and watch out for the car that is approaching you from the side. As Bruce Lee once said "... It's like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all of the heavenly glory." In the case of 4DX, you may end up just concentrating on the Lead Measures and you miss everything else going on around you.
All that being said, I would highly recommend 4DX as a system to make organisational change and help reach your goals. It is particularly effective when implemented at an organisational level as it provides a framework that can be used by an entire company. It allows teams and departments to work towards their own individual goals, but feed into the overall companywide strategy.