Book Summary : The 4 Disciplines of Execution

Lakshmi Doddi
5 min readMay 7, 2020

To achieve a goal you’ve never achieved before, you must do things you’ve never done before.

four jet airplanes image
Photo by Samuel Penn on Unsplash

In Stephen R. Covey words “ The 4 disciplines offer a release-oriented knowledge-worker-age approach to executing goals and strategies, an approach that engages people’s hearts and minds toward a common goal unlike anything I’ve seen.”

There are two principal things a leader can influence when it comes to producing results: strategy(or plan) and ability to execute that strategy. Why is execution so difficult? After all, if the strategy is clear, and you as the leader are driving it, won’t the team naturally engage to achieve it? The answer is “NO” and it’s likely that your own experience has proven this more than once.

Why do the most strategic initiatives fail at the time of execution?

The four main reasons for the failure of strategic execution are lack of clarity, commitment, collaboration, and accountability. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” by Peter Drucker makes a lot of sense. The greatest leadership challenge is executing a strategy that requires significant behavioral/cultural changes. As a leader knows, getting the commitment that endures the midst of chaos or uncertainty is not easy.

The real enemy of the execution is fire-fighting or the whirlwind. It’s the massive amount of energy that’s necessary just to keep your operation going on a day-to-day basis. Organizations seldom differentiate the strategic goals and the whirlwind, both are required for survival. When the urgency and importance clash, the urgency always wins.

If you ignore the urgent activities, it can kill you today.

If you ignore the important stuff, it can kill you tomorrow.

The challenge is executing the most important goals in the midst of the urgent activities.

The 4 disciplines or rules for executing the most critical strategy in the midst of the whirlwind:

Discipline 1: Focus on the Wildly Important Goals (WIGs)

Leaders need to focus on the wildly important goals or objectives. As a leader, wiring is to focus on achieving more objectives, so that the team can achieve more. This lack of focus magnifies the intensity of the whirlwind, dilutes your efforts, and makes success almost impossible. The focus of your team to one or five wildly important goals, the team can easily distinguish between truly a top priority and the whirlwind.

Steps to apply Discipline 1:Focus on the Wildly Important Goals:

  • A clear strategy drives direction and execution. Ideally, both the leader and the team participate in defining WIGs. Only the leader can provide clarity about what matters most.
  • Identify the objectives that promise the greatest potential impact on the overall organizational WIGs

Evaluate the impact of WIGs by asking four questions:

  • Is it aligned?
  • Is it measurable?
  • Does the team have at least 80% capacity to execute?
  • Is it attainable?

Discipline 2: Act on the lead measures

Lag measures are the tracking measurements of the wildly important goals. They are measures of success; they are the results you have to achieve; they are your success metrics.

Lead measures are activities the team should do to achieve WIGs, and they are predictive and can be influenced by the team members. Acting on the lead measures is one of the little-known secrets of execution.

For example:- While the lag measure is pounds lost, two lead measures might be a specific limit on calories per day and a specific number of hours of exercise per week. They are influenceable because both of these new behaviors are within your control.

The team needs to identify initiatives that will have the greatest impact of achieving the WIGs: 80/20 Pareto principle activities. What 20 percent of your team does have more leverage on the WIGs? A small portion of activities will always be effective, and it may be buried within a less effective activity.

Data on lag measures is almost always much easier to obtain and more visible than data on lead measures. You must create a way to track lead measures. Without data, you can’t drive performance on the lead measures; Without the lead measures, you don’t have leverage. The team acting consistently on the right lead measures made it all possible.

Steps to apply Discipline 2: Identify Lead Measures

Two types of Lead Measures:

  • Small outcome-based lead measures.
  • Behavior lead measure is accountable for performing the behavior, rather than for producing the result. For example:- Reaching out 20 investors in a month.

Your success depends on identifying correct lead measures and keeping track of them.

Discipline 3: Keep a compelling scoreboard

Great teams know at every moment whether they are winning or not. They must know, otherwise, they don’t know what they have to do to win the game. Data on lag measures and lead measures should be available, easily understandable, and visible for the team all the time in a compelling scoreboard. To reach the highest level of engagement, a team needs to be able to see the data on lag and lead measures moving at least weekly; otherwise, they will lose interest fast.

Steps to apply Discipline 3: Create a Compelling Scoreboard

Characteristics of a compelling ScoreBoard:

  • It has to be simple.
  • It has to be visible and easily accessible. Visibility also drives accountability.
  • It should show both the lead and lag measures — The lead measure is what the team can affect. The lag measure is the result they want.
  • It has to tell you immediately if you are making progress or not.

Discipline 4: Create a cadence of accountability

Disciplines 1, 2, and 3 bring focus, clarity, and engagement, which are powerful and necessary elements for your success. But with Discipline 4, you and your team ensure that the goal is achieved, no matter what is happening around you.

Weekly Check-ins: What is the most important thing I can do this week? The keeping of weekly commitment drives the lead measures, and the lead measurements drive achievement of the WIGs. If you keep the cadence of accountability, week after week, your team unleashes this focused energy against the lead measures that have a direct effect on the WIGs.

When members of a team see their peers consistently following through on the commitments they make, they grow in respect of each other. They learn that the people they work with can be trusted to follow through. When this happens, performance improves dramatically.

Steps to apply Discipline 4: Regular Check-ins

  • Report on last week’s commitments. Each team member reports on the commitments to move the lead measures that he or she made the prior week.
  • Review the scoreboard: Learn from success and failures. The team assesses whether their commitments are moving the lead measures and whether the lead measure is moving the lag measure. They discuss what they’ve learned about what works and what doesn’t and how to adapt.
  • Plan: Clear the path and make new commitments. Each member of the team makes commitments for the coming week that will raise the lead measures to the required level of performance.

The 4 disciplines of Execution” is one of my favorite business books and which I turn to often.“Measure What Matters — The power of OKRs” is also very aligned with 4 disciplines and influential book in goal-setting and execution.