The Discipline of Getting Things Done


Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan

Crown Business, 2002, 268 pp. 


BosExec 03-1-4

Every business has three processes: strategies, personnel, and operations.  Desired results occur when the right people and strategy are linked to an operating process that results in the implementation of specific programs and actions with accountability.  Leading these processes is the job of the leader.  He must force the organization to face reality via robust dialogue among the doers.

Bossidy is chairman and former CEO of Honeywell International.  Ram Charan is an advisor to CEOs.  The book has a nice balance of principles, examples, and commentary.

Section 1:  Execution: the gap between promise and delivery

Section 2:  The Building Blocks

Section 3:  The Three Core Processes

Execution has not been adequately explained, but it is the biggest issue facing business and the behaviors comprising it must be mastered.  Leaders often emphasize high-level strategy and minimize implementation.  Execution is a discipline, a system.  It is critical for success.  It has to be built into a company’s strategy, goals and culture.  And the leader must be deeply engaged in it.  (6-7)  “The main requirement is that you as a leader have to be deeply and passionately engaged in your organization and honest about its realities with others and yourself.”  (8)

Part I.  Why Execution is Needed

One of the biggest problems facing many good companies is regularly failing to produce promised results. (14)  There is a gap between what the leaders want to achieve and the ability of their organizations to achieve it.  “But unless you translate big thoughts into concrete steps for action, they’re pointless.”  (19)

“No worthwhile strategy can be planned without taking into account the organization’s ability to execute it.”  “In its most fundamental sense, execution is a systematic way of exposing reality and acting on it.  Most companies don’t face reality very well.  The core of Jack Welch’s style of management was “that he forced realism into all of GE’s management processes.”  (21 -22)

Regarding the annual review of plans:  “Typically too the reviews are not particularly interactive.  People sit passively watching PowerPoint presentations.  They don’t ask questions.  They don’t debate, and as a result they don’t get much useful outcome.  People leave with no commitments to the action plans they’ve helped create.  This is a formula for failure.  You need robust dialogue to surface the realities of the business.”  (22-3)

“The leader must be in charge of getting things done by running the three core processes—picking other leaders, setting the strategic direction, and conducting operations.  These actions are the substance of execution, and leaders cannot delegate them regardless of the size of the organization.”  (24)

“Only the leader can set the tone of the dialogue in the organization.  Dialogue is the core of culture and the basic unit of work.  How people talk to each other absolutely determines how well the organization will function.”  “Is it candid and reality-based, raising the right questions, debating them, and finding realistic solutions?”  (24)

“When things are running well, I spend 20 percent of my time on the people process.  When I’m rebuilding an organization, it’s 40 percent.”  “I mean really getting to know people.”  “I’ll go to a meeting of the whole staff and listen to what they have to say.”  (26)

“The leader who executes often does not even have to tell people what to do; she asks questions so they can figure out what they need to do.” (28)

“Execution has to be in the culture.”  (30)

Re one failure:  The goals were unrealistic from the beginning.  “If the leaders had had an open dialogue with the manufacturing people, they might have learned about the manufacturing obstacle, but that wasn’t in their makeup.  They just handed the numbers down.”  “…they’re worse than useless if they’re totally unrealistic, or if the people who have to meet them aren’t given the chance to debate them beforehand and take ownership of them.” 

First involve all the people responsible for the outcome, including the key production people, in shaping the plan.  Second, Ask the people how, specifically, they are going to achieve the results on a timely basis and within cost.  If they don’t have the answers, get them before launching the plan.  Third, Set milestones for evaluating progress.  Fourth, Set up contingency plans to deal with the unexpected.  (38-9)

Re McGinn’s failure at Lucent: “A leader with a more comprehensive understanding of the organization would not have set such unrealistic goals.”  “Lucent didn’t have the capability to get its products to market fast enough.”  (There was also) “failure to understand changes in the external environment.”  In addition, they set out in too many directions at once. (43-4)

Re Brown’s success at EDS: “Brown jumped out into the playing field.  First, he got to know the company intimately, traveling around the globe for three months, meeting people at all levels formally and informally to talk and listen.  In weekly e-mails that he sent to the whole organization, he not only told employees what he was thinking but also asked them to respond and make suggestions.”  (47)

Part II.  The Building Blocks of Execution

Building Block One:  The Leader’s Seven Essential Behaviors

·    “Know your people and your business.

·    Insist on realism.

·    Set clear goals and priorities.

·    Follow through.

·    Reward the doers.

·    Expand people’s capabilities.

·    Know yourself.” (57)

“In companies that don’t execute, the leaders are usually out of touch with the day-to-day realities.”  “They don’t know their organizations comprehensively, and their people don’t really know them.”  (58)

“The personal connection is especially critical when a leader starts something new.”  “Good, important ideas get launched with much fanfare, but six months or a year later they’re dead….  Why?  Down in the organization, the managers feel that the last thing they need is one more time-consuming project of uncertain merit and outcome, so they blow it off.  ‘This too will pass,’ they say, ….”  (65)

“Realism is the heart of execution.”  “You start by being realistic yourself.  Then you make sure realism is the goal of all dialogues in the organization.”  (67)’

“When I go out to visit facilities, I ask people, ‘What are we doing right in this business, and what are we doing wrong in this business?’  Then I’ll ask, ‘What do you like about Honeywell, and what don’t you like?’”  (68)’

“Focus on a very few clear priorities that everyone can grasp.”  (69)’

“Follow through.  Clear, simple goals don’t mean much if nobody takes them seriously.”  In too many meetings everyone agrees on the idea but people leave without specific actions and time frames.  Nothing happens.  (71)

“The most effective way to coach is to observe a person in action and then provide specific useful feedback.”  “The skill of the coach is the art of questioning.  Asking incisive questions forces people to thin, to discover, to search.”  (74)  “Your aim is to ask the questions that bring out the realities and give people the help they need to correct problems.”  (76)

“It takes emotional fortitude to be open to whatever information you need, whether it’s what you like to hear or not.  …to accept points of view that are the opposite of yours…, and accept challenges in group settings.”  (78)

Building Block Two: Creating the Framework for Cultural Change

“The ‘soft’ stuff—people’s beliefs and behaviors—is at least as important as hard stuff, such as organizational structure, if not more so.”  (85)

“Cultural change gets real when your aim is execution.”  “You need to change people’s behavior so that they produce results.  First you tell people clearly what results you’re looking for.  Then you discuss how to get those results, as a key element of the coaching process.  Then you reward people for producing the results.”  (86)

“Behaviors are beliefs turned into action.  Behaviors deliver the results.”  The concern here is “norms of behavior: the accepted, expected ways groups of people behave in the corporate setting…, how people work together.”  (91)

“The foundation of changing behavior is linking rewards to performance and making the linkages transparent.”  (92)  “You should reward not just strong achievements on numbers but also the desirable behaviors that people actually adopt.”  (94)

Help people master the new behaviors.  Coach.  Teach people to break a major concept down into smaller critical tasks that can be executed in the shorter term.  (96)

Often people seem to agree in meetings but nothing happens because nobody states their misgivings.  They simply let the project die quietly.  (97)

“You cannot have an execution culture without robust dialogue—one that brings reality to the surface through openness, candor, and informality.”  “Robust dialogue starts when people go in with open minds.  They want to hear new information and choose the best alternatives….”  People speak candidly.  “Informality is critical to candor.”  “The aim is to invite multiple viewpoints, see the pros and cons of each one, and try honestly and candidly to construct new viewpoints.”  And finally the robust dialogue ends with closure.  People agree about what each person has to do and when.  They commit to it in open forum and they are accountable for outcomes.  (103, 104)

“The reason most companies don’t face reality very well is that their dialogues are ineffective.”  (103)

Building Block Three: The Job No Leader Should Delegate—Having the Right People in the Right Place

Given the many uncertainties of businesses, “the one thing they can control—the quality of their people…”  (109)  “The quality of their people is the best competitive differentiator.”  “Dell ultimately out-competed Compaq, a far bigger company, because Michael Dell took great pains to have the right people in the right jobs….”  “If you look at any business that’s consistently successful, you’ll find that its leaders focus intensely and relentlessly on people selection.”  (110)

“Leaders need to commit as much as 40 percent of their time and emotional energy, in one form or another, to selecting, appraising, and developing people.”  (118)

In investigating a potential hire, the most important question is: How good is this person at getting things done?  (119)

Part III  The Three Core Processes of Execution

The People Process; Making the Link with Strategy and Operations

“A robust people process does three things.  It evaluates individuals accurately and in depth.  It provides a framework for identifying and developing the (future) leadership talent….  And it fills the leadership pipeline that’s the basis of a strong succession plan.”  (141)

“Meeting medium- and long-term milestones greatly depends on having a pipeline of promising and promotable leaders.”  “Nothing is more important to an organization’s competitive advantage.”  (150)

HR has to be linked to strategy and operations.  (166)

A robust people process requires integrity, honesty, a common approach, common language, and frequency.  Above all, candid dialogue is critical.  (172)

The Strategy Process: Making the Link with People and Operations

(The) substance and detail (of a robust strategy) must come from the minds of the people who are closest to the action and who understand their markets, their resources, and their strengths and weaknesses.”  “In creating it, you as a leader have to ask whether and how your organization can do the things that are needed to achieve its goals.”  “Once you have developed the plan, you need to ask: How good are the assumptions upon which the plan hinges?”  “Do you have the organizational capability to execute the plan?”  “If a strategy does not address the hows, it is a candidate for failure.”  (178-9) 

A business strategy clearly lays out where it is now, where it will be going, and how it will get there.  It looks at costs, analyzes risks, and includes flexibility in the case of failure or new opportunities.  It gives you plenty of room to maneuver.  “You get specific when you’re deciding the action part of the plan, where you link it with people and operations.” (184-5)

“To be effective, a strategy has to be constructed and owned by those who will execute it, namely the line people.”  (185)

“People tend to look at their businesses from the inside out—that is, they get so focused on making and selling their products that they lose awareness of the needs and buying behaviors of their customers.  The issue is simply understanding the specific people who make the purchasing decisions and their buying behavior.”  (190-1)

“An astonishing number of strategies fail because leaders don’t make a realistic assessment of whether the organization can execute the plan.”  (195)

“Every business has half a dozen or so critical issues—the ones that can badly hurt it or prevent it from capitalizing on new opportunities or reaching its objectives.  Addressing these usually requires research and thought.”  “Many strategies fall apart because the right critical issues aren’t raised.”   (201,203)

The Operations Process: Making the Link with Strategy and People

Many companies translate their strategic plans into operations via budgeting process.  But budgeting doesn’t deal with how—or even whether—you can get the results.  It is disconnected from reality. 

The operating plan provides the path for reaching the targets.  “It ties a thread through people, strategy, and operations, and it translates into assigning goals and objectives for the next year.”  “All of the people accountable for executing the plan need to help construct it.” (226-8) 

Sound assumptions are the key to realistic goals.  You cannot set realistic goals until you’ve debated the assumptions behind them.  Get them all out in the open with everyone present and a leader who asks penetrating questions.  Then test them by going to customers or some other source to be sure they’re valid.  (236-7)

The first assumption:  “Who is the customer?  How does he buy it and why?  What’s the need?  How long will the need last?  What is the competition doing?  Is your value proposition good enough?”  (239)

These are operating plans, not hopes and dreams.  This is about reality.  (259)

Key lessons:

·    Get to know your organization.  Get down where the action is, talk with people at all levels.  Ask questions and listen.

·    Get the doers in on the planning.  Face reality by inviting candid discussion in an informal setting.  Challenge all facets of the goals and plans.  Examine assumptions.  Test them with the customers.

·    Agree on action plans with checkpoints.  Follow through with regular evaluation.  Examine reasons for failure.  Make adjustments. 

·    Reward results and desired behaviors.