4 Reasons You Can’t Execute

Jul 12, 2012

 A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.

Take a look around – how many great decisions have you made this year that never got off the ground?

Ever get the feeling that when you put your foot on the gas pedal, nothing happens? That although you and your team are as capable as ever at coming up with smart, competition-beating ideas, you’ve lost the ability to execute on those ideas?

If you’re finding it increasingly hard to see great decisions through to final completion – if you’re missing the sense of achievement that comes from translating ideas into results-delivering reality, then chances are it’s because of one or more of these four reasons:

1. Your decision-making process is screwed

Whether the group you manage is a business, division, department, project or team, the way in which information arrives into the group, is processed, and is turned into action is the single most crucial determinant of your ability to execute.

If your information flow is snarled – a decision has to be run by three different people before being approved, for example, or your accounting software doesn’t give you high-quality data in a timely fashion – then a gap will open up between the ability of your group to make a decision and its ability to translate that decision into real action on the ground.

Grab a legal pad and trace the path of the last two or three decisions your team made that weren’t effectively and efficiently executed: map where the necessary information came from, the main communication lines and key decision points. When you’re done, if you can easily make sense of what you see, all is good. If it looks like a rat’s nest of intertwined, overlapping, dead-end-reaching lines, you need to simplify your group’s decision-making process.

2. You’re a bottleneck

The ability of a group to execute effectively can be crushed by just one micromanager.

You know the type: insists everything is ‘run by them’, even when they’re not the most qualified person to assess the data; is so overwhelmed by the volume of stuff being ‘run by them’ that they can barely come up for air; and is so preoccupied with minutia that whatever they look at is guaranteed to come back covered with amendments.

Look around – can you see the micromanager in your group? Probably not – because they’re easy to spot, and if there was one, you’d have done whatever was necessary to retrain or remove them.

So, here’s the thing: if you can’t see the micromanager in your group, it’s probably you. Micromanaging – so easy to see in others, is much harder to see in ourselves.

Here’s a full-proof test: pick out the single most productive person in your group. Watch closely at how they get things done. If it includes finding multiple innovative ways to bypass you, then you’re the problem.

3. You’re rushing the decision

Remember when your business was small and life was simple? When a board meeting was a ride up in the elevator? When you could make three great decisions before breakfast and have them implemented by lunch? When communicating a decision was as simple as saying it out loud, because everyone was within hearing distance?

Now, life isn’t that simple – your business has grown and now has many more moving parts: more people, more customers, more systems, more…everything. And, chances are that the growth in complexity happened iteratively, over time, and like the proverbial frog in slowly heated water, you haven’t noticed the effect on your decision-making.

Here’s the difference: In the smaller, simpler business, you can make a decision fast, and implement it quickly. Now you have a larger, more complex business, making decisions fast actually slows down the implementation process – sometimes crippling it entirely. Why? Because you made the decision so fast you didn’t take into account all the variables (people, customers, systems) involved in your now more complex business.

Once a business has grown beyond infancy, speedy and effective implementation depends on slower decision-making. Not slow – you don’t need to descend into to paralysis by analysis – just slow-er: take a little longer to make the initial decision, and watch the rate of implementation rise.

4. You’ve worn everyone out

You’re a passionate, engaged leader. You’re intellectually curious, innovative, and not afraid of risk. You’re full of great ideas and keen to implement them. Your people respect and admire you… and they’re exhausted.

Do your team members avoid you on Monday mornings? Do they look apprehensive when you return from a 2-week vacation? If so, it’s because they know weekends and holidays are dangerous times: that’s when you come back to the office with five brilliant, must-do projects – even though they haven’t finished implementing last month’s brilliant, must-do projects.

If you suspect this might be you, then do yourself and your team a favor: keep a list of all current projects, and when you next have a blinding flash of creativity which produces a new project, instead of simply adding it to the list, make a conscious, explicit decision about which existing project to drop off the list in return.

You’ll find that compared with your existing priorities, many of those ‘brilliant must-do’s’ just aren’t that important, and those that do make the list will stand much more chance of actually being implemented.