Monday, February 22, 2016

4DX Is Harder Than It Reads

For whatever reason, my May 2014 post on the management book, The 4 Disciplines of Execution (also known as 4DX) has been getting some traction lately. Two people have reached out to me in the last month to see how my experiment with this strategy execution system was working out. And I'm going to assume that in a world where basically no one comments (much less reads) blogs anymore, two humans taking the time and trouble to contact me directly means I have definitely hit a nerve.

So, how is the experiment going? Not as well I hoped, I'm afraid.

First of all, let me reiterate, as I did in May 2014, that I got a lot out of the experience of reading the book. It promises a lot in its subtitle, “Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals,” and it delivers what I take to be a deceptively simple and oddly compelling system for doing exactly that. It's an easy and thought-provoking read, but putting its concepts into practice in my organization has been somewhat more difficult.

The difficulty starts with pretty much what I end the May 2014 blog post with: speculation on what should I choose as my Wildly Important Goals, or WIGs. The point of WIGs is to create focus in what is otherwise a whirlwind of activity. A single or a small set of "wildly important" goals that the team can devote their attention to, with each WIG tied to a metric that can both be tracked in regularly-scheduled WIG sessions and affected by the activities of the team.

To illustrate by way of simple example, a WIG might be to grow membership from 1,000 to 1,500 in a year and the WIG sessions might be scheduled weekly where the number of members in the association is plotted weekly against a line that extends from 1,000 members on Day 1 and 1,500 members on Day 365. As long as the actual number of members grows at a pace that keeps it above that line, the team keeps doing what it's doing. If it falls below that line, the team must discuss and change its behaviors and practices, attempting to put the growth curve back on the appropriate pace.

I love the concept, and it's clear that picking the right WIG is really important. I had trouble deciding if I should "aim high," with a WIG tied to our association's mission or a small handful of WIGs tied to our main areas of strategic priority, or if I should "aim low" with many more WIGs tied to important programs and program objectives in the association.

"Aiming high" would achieve the goal of keeping the WIGs few in number, creating more focus in a typical "whirlwindy" association environment, but it would also, frankly, make it difficult to find something we could track and affect on a weekly basis. Our mission, after all, is to strengthen the fluid power industry, and our strategic priorities define large-scale areas of association activity: grow the fluid power workforce is an example I've used before.

"Aiming low," on the other hand, would give us many more WIGs than the authors of 4DX would recommend, but by focusing on programs and program objectives, we would be a lot closer to the things we could both measure and affect through staff activity. Things like increasing the number of members accessing our resources online, or increasing the number of positive messages about our industry and its technology we push out into the community, may be activity-based surrogates for the outcomes we seek, but they are still the kinds of things we need to pull out of the whirlwind and give more focus.

In the end, I decided to take a kind of middle path. We've been working with our Board over the last year or so to define something we call "success metrics." Strategically, they live below the level of our mission and strategic priorities, but above the level of our programs and program objectives. If you go back and look at the simplified strategic plan chart I included near the bottom of May 2014 post, the success metrics are basically what are identified as the "Objectives" there. Multiple programs combine together to move a success metric, and multiple success metrics combine together to achieve strategic priorities. If the priority is to grow the fluid power workforce, then one success metric might be to graduate more fluid power-educated students from our partner universities, and the programs associated with that metric might be things like providing scholarships and building more fluid power teaching labs at those schools.

The point is there are fewer success metrics than there are programs, they are more closely tied to the outcomes our association seeks to achieve, they are within our ability to track and affect, and they tend to get lost in the whirlwind of program activity. Perfect candidates, I thought, for our WIGs!

So having made that excellent decision, why do I say that our experiment is not going as well as I had hoped? I'll go into those details next week.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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