Read an Excerpt
Stick with It
Mastering the Art of Adherence
By Lee J. Colan, Julie Davis-Colan
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Lee Colan and Julie Davis-Colan
All rights reserved.
The Knowing-Doing Gap
How many times have we been told that the formula for maintaining a healthy weight is to eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly? Although sophisticated marketers package this information in many creative ways, it's really quite simple: calories in equal calories out. If we know the formula, then why do so many of us still struggle to lose weight? The real secret to maintaining a healthy weight is not in knowing the formula, but in executing it. That is where our challenge seems to lie—in applying what we already know.
This same dynamic is magnified every year on January 1, when millions of us make New Year's resolutions. The beginning of a new year is a time to start fresh, to set new goals, and to make new plans for various areas of our lives. But we all know what happens. We slip back into our routine, and those resolutions fall by the wayside. A recent survey by FranklinCovey found that 35 percent of people break their resolutions by the end of January (many in less than a week) and that a mere 23 percent of New Year's resolutions are ever kept.
It's not that our intentions are bad; quite the contrary. And it's not that we don't know how to tackle our resolutions. The problem is that most of us don't stick with it long enough to permanently change our behavior and get the results we want. (It takes at least 21 days of repeated action for a new behavior to become a habit.) There is a knowing-doing gap—we know what to do, but fail to do it consistently.
The same knowing-doing gap happens in business every day. Organizations develop brilliant strategies and are initially motivated to implement them. And yet many don't adhere to their strategies long enough to achieve the desired results. Most organizations understand how to develop a strategy, but many fail to successfully execute it. Consider the following findings:
Ernst & Young found that a full 66 percent of corporate strategy are never executed.
Robert Kaplan and David Norton (The Strategy-Focused Organization) reveal that 90 percent of well-formulated strategies fail due to poor execution.
Deloitte identified top executives' single biggest hindrance to their companies' growth was "poor execution of strategy."
Now consider that in a typical year about 15 percent of CEOs are removed from their posts. Why? Of course, some have poor strategies. However, if we read between the lines of most corporate press releases, the most common reason CEOs lose their leadership positions is that they don't fully execute their strategies. In fact, according to highly regarded business consultant Ram Charan and Fortune columnist Geoffrey Colvin, 70 percent of CEO failures come not as result of poor strategy but of poor execution. Chief executives are well aware of the challenges. According to a survey of 769 CEOs by The Conference Board, "excellence in execution" ranked as their number one business challenge.
Lack of strategy execution is not isolated to the c-suite. Leaders at all levels and in every corner of the organization, from the production line to sales, experience challenges in executing their plans. For example, many organizations have formal quality processes in place, yet still deal with quality concerns. Chances are that frontline team members understand the quality control processes but don't consistently apply them. Safety is another area in which the knowing- doing gap is prevalent. Safety professionals know all too well the challenges of trying to get employees to follow safety procedures.
But perhaps nowhere in business is the knowing-doing gap more obvious than in sales. For many businesses, sales are a numbers game: a specified number of calls lead to a certain number of prospects that generate requests for proposals that ultimately yield a predictable number of sales. It's the classic sales funnel. Salespeople know the formula behind the funnel and are typically well trained in sales techniques. Those who execute consistently are high performers, the sales superstars. Those who consistently fail to execute, fail.
The consensus among strategy experts is that formulating strategy is relatively easy compared to executing it. But why is it so difficult for us to stick with our plan? What is at the root of this knowing-doing gap? In his book, Making Strategy Work: Leading Effective Execution and Change, Wharton School Management Professor Lawrence Hrebiniak proposes that execution is difficult primarily because:
Leaders are trained to plan rather than to execute.
Senior leadership tends to leave execution to lower-level leaders and team members and to review progress only periodically.
Execution requires more people than strategy formulation. Developing strategy is typically done by relatively few people, whereas execution is a teamwide or businesswide endeavor.
Execution requires more time than strategy formulation. Developing strategy is one action step; execution is a continuous, long-term process.
Execution is simple in theory but difficult to put into practice. The great baseball player Yogi Berra was known as much for his witticisms as for his on- the-field performance. Berra had keen insight when he said, "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is."
Filling the Knowing-Doing Gap
The greatest challenge for today's leaders is not a lack of innovative strategies but a lack of disciplined execution of these strategies. The game is won not by those who stand on the sidelines with a great plan in hand nor those who execute their plans when it is convenient or easy. Rather, the game is won by those who are committed to executing their plans day in and day out. Conceptually, this seems valid and logical, but does it hold true in real organizations run by real people? To answer that question, let's look at research based on real companies from all over the world that know how to execute and get results.
In 2012, Fortune magazine and Hay Group conducted a global survey to identify the world's most admired companies and to determine which best practices catapulted these companies to (or kept them at) the top of the list. The study looked at the Fortune 1000, the Global 500, and the top foreign companies operating in the United States. The four characteristics that distinguish the world's most admired companies are:
1. Strategic excellence
2. Structures and processes that sustain performance over time
3. Achieving success through people
4. Placing a high value on leadership and talent
The report concluded: "This doesn't just mean the World's Most Admired Companies are good at making plans (though they are). Where they shine is in their ability to make strategy happen, by aligning both their organizations and their people with key goals and objectives, by seeing things through.... Most companies devote a lot of attention to strategic planning. But the Most Admired Companies also put those strategies into practice."
In other words, the world's most admired companies know how to stick with it. They may not have completely eliminated the knowing-doing gap, but they have certainly reduced it enough to create a significant competitive advantage.
Of course it's nice to be recognized as one of the world's most admired companies. However, bottom-line results are key indicators of an organization's health. So how do the top 50 world's most admired companies compare in that respect? Below is a comparison of total shareholder returns for these same companies versus the S&P 500.
In every time period, the world's most admired companies outperformed not only the competition within their industries but also the market as a whole. And over a 10-year period, their returns were five times that of the S&P 500. These are pretty compelling differences. They are even more amazing when you consider the simplicity of the four differentiating characteristics: strategy, structure, people, and leadership. Could it really be that simple? Yes, it is. The difference between the world's most admired companies and the rest of the pack is that they do the basics exceptionally well and they execute their strategies masterfully.
These findings confirm that having a sound strategy is only one piece of a winning formula. Disciplined execution is the game-changer. How much of a game changer? A survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit (a sister organization of CFO.com) of 197 executives attempted to determine the value of filling the knowing-doing gap. These senior executives predicted that if they were to stick with it and become "very effective" at strategy execution, they would likely improve operating profits by an average of 30 percent over two years.
Bottom line: Consistent execution consistently wins.
Ideas are easy. It's the execution of ideas that really separates the sheep from the goats.
Sue Grafton, Novelist
What Is Adherence?
In business and in life, the game is usually won by those who can consistently execute a well-thought-out strategy. In other words, winners stick with it—they practice adherence.
Adherence is the ability to consistently execute. Not coincidentally, the word "adherence" appears to have originated in the 1500s from the French word "adherer," which means "to stick to." Adherence is the critical link between strategy (knowing) and results (doing). Therefore, it is the solution to the knowing-doing gap. Winning requires adherence because successful execution of your plan is not a one-time event but rather steady progress over an extended period of time.
No discussion about the concept of adherence would be complete without mentioning one man who likely knew more about adherence in his day than any other: George de Mestral. George was a Swiss engineer and part-time inventor. A simple incident in 1948 changed the course of his life and led to a common product that is still used all over the world.
While he was out hunting with his dog one day, George found that his pants and his dog's fur were covered with burdock burrs. He had such difficulty removing the burrs that he became intrigued with the little seeds' pods. Later when he was back home, he examined one under a microscope. George noticed that it was covered with hundreds of tiny "hooks" that allowed it to grab hold of strands of clothing or fur. Inspired by nature's ingenuity, he conceived the idea for a similar fastener based on the burr's design.
After several years of trial and error and working with a weaver in France, George perfected the design for his "locking tape." He called his invention Velcro®, from the French words velours and crochet (meaning "velvet" and "hook"), and was awarded a patent for the world's first hook-and-loop fastener in 1955. George quit his job, established his own company, and obtained a $150,000 loan to market the concept. Velcro was officially introduced in 1960, but it was not an immediate commercial success. It took some time before people began to grasp its many applications. Eventually, it was adopted by industries as varied as aerospace and children's clothing, making de Mestral a multimillionaire many times over.
Today, Velcro is a household name. It is found in everything from sneakers and wallets to blood-pressure cuffs and toys. It was used on the space shuttle and helped hold a human heart together during the first artificial heart surgery. It was even used as a piece of comedic genius in 1984 when late night talk show host David Letterman launched himself from a trampoline onto a Velcro wall while wearing a Velcro suit. He stuck.
It took George de Mestral 12 years from the day he first encountered those sticky burrs to the time he brought his locking tape idea to market and even longer for it to become a success. Not only did he tenaciously stick to his plan, but the product he planned and then executed literally stuck to him. So when you think of adherence, think of George de Mestral. Perhaps we should dub him "the father of adherence." He stuck with it long enough to create one of the stickiest materials we know.
The Adherence Equation
So how do you achieve adherence? How can you ensure that you will stick with your strategy long enough to win? Fortunately, adherence is a skill that can be learned. Based on the experiences of winning individuals, teams, and organizations, we have identified three components of adherence:
Focus provides the clarity necessary to make decisions that support your most important goals. It results in a clearly defined pathway to success. A sharp focus answers the "what" question. What do you need to do to execute your strategy?
Competence is used in the broadest sense of the term. It encompasses all the skills, systems, processes, and tools a team uses to achieve its goals. The result is the ability to commit to, measure, and hit your targets. Building competence answers the "how" question. How will you execute your strategy?
Passion creates a sense of connectedness. It creates a connection between teammates, a connection to our human need for meaningful work, and a connection to each individual's sense of value and contribution. Igniting passion answers the "why" question, Why are you executing your strategy?
The relationship between these three components is best illustrated by a multiplication equation we call the adherence equation:
When you think about adherence this way, the critical role of each component becomes clear. From elementary school math we know that if any multiplier in an equation is 0, then the product is 0. For example, assume that each of the three components—focus, competence, and passion—are rated on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being the lowest and 10 being the highest. If any one of the three components is missing, (e.g., focus = 0), then there is no adherence:
The three adherence components are interrelated, meaning that changes in one affect changes in the others, similar to the way the various systems of the human body affect one another. As you address one component of the equation—or conversely, as you ignore one—you will see direct implications in the other two. Consider what happens with a modest improvement in all three components:
A modest improvement in each component produces a 73 percent increase in adherence (125 to 216). This underscores the compounding relationship among these components. Focus, competence, and passion are equally important and more powerful together.
This interrelationship creates a multiplier effect that can work for you (or against you if the components are not managed). Enhancing one component creates a multiplier effect on your adherence. As we discuss each of the three components, you will see the connections and notice that focus, competence, and passion are not three distinct and separate elements; rather, they are interconnected dynamics that influence and build upon each other.
The Art of Adherence
As we discuss at the beginning of this book, adherence is simple but not necessarily easy. It takes skill and creativity to continually nurture focus, competence, and passion with your team. This is why we call it the art of adherence.
The art of adherence is a lot like growing Indian Thorny bamboo, which is native to Asia. Like many bamboo species, when this particular seed is planted, it requires the right amount of watering, sunlight, care, and feeding. It takes up to two years of this kind of careful attention for the bamboo to build a strong root structure, which is not visible aboveground. However, once the sprout finally breaks through the earth, the Indian Thorny bamboo can grow up to 100 feet in a month!
When you consistently sharpen focus, build competence, and ignite passion, you build a strong foundation for adherence. Initially, you may not see many tangible results. But rest assured that things are happening beyond your sight. Adherence is growing. Leaders and team members begin to stick with it, to execute their plans consistently. Your team builds momentum as it adheres to its plan and achieves small goals that lead to bigger goals. The required effort decreases over time as actions become habits. Momentum continues to build, resulting in a self-reinforcing cycle of achievement. Then, seemingly overnight, your results will multiply.
Mastering the art of adherence is a primary job of every leader at every level of the organization, and the adherence equation is designed to help you do just that. It offers a proven way for you to consistently execute your plan. Before we dive into the components of focus, competence, and passion, let's explore the relationship between adherence and strategy.
I think our lives are akin to the Chinese bamboo tree. Sometimes we put forth effort, put forth effort, and put forth effort and nothing seems to happen. But if you do the right things long enough, you'll receive the rewards of your efforts.
Cathy Truett, Founder Chick-fil-A
Excerpted from Stick with It by Lee J. Colan. Copyright © 2013 by Lee Colan and Julie Davis-Colan. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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