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10 rules for getting things done

By Professor Jacques Horovitz - September 2012

Moving a company forward takes more than a well-formulated strategy and good implementation processes: ultimately it comes down to how well each individual executive gets things done. Successful execution at an organizational level depends almost entirely on each individual manager executing his or her part promptly and efficiently.  

The challenge for business leaders, then, is making sure that all of their managers stay on track and on task. Here are 10 rules that can help.  

1. If it's not on the calendar, it won't happen. Using a shared team calendar allows you to make deadlines clear, schedule in updates to monitor progress, and let your team know when you want to see them. Setting several dates in a row can help you to force the pace of progress.  

2. Focus on the follow-through. Big programs are often broken into smaller, more manageable chunks, each run by separate team leaders. As the person with overall responsibility for delivery, it is essential to make sure that each of these project leaders is executing as required. Do not allow unresolved issues to drop, and to be prepared to offer feedback as necessary.  

3. No project owner means no progress. A great idea is a fragile thing: even the best ideas die fast unless someone takes responsibility for putting them into action. This project owner should have the time, resources, autonomy and talent required to succeed.  

4. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Few people enjoy the luxury of having all the time that they need to get things done; most of us spend our days constantly balancing priorities and choosing between options. The key to successful execution is choosing the important tasks – those which will have the biggest impact on whether or not you can achieve your objective – rather than the urgent tasks, which can often be left to wait. The other critical tool here is delegation: if you do not have to do a task personally, assign it to someone else.  

5. Initiate: it gains time. Initiation means using your resources to get a project started, even if you do not have the time to get involved in it at that moment. This means that others in your team can get the ball rolling, for example by finding and analyzing relevant data, so that when you are free to get on board you do not need to waste time on any of this preliminary work.  

6. Skip the boasting. Save grand announcements for when you have a proven success. Boasting about the things that you hope to achieve will only raise people's expectations – and then damage their trust in you should you fail to perform. Instead, focus on action and execution, because results will always say more than any speech.  

7. Question everything. Few people ask enough questions, either of themselves or others. Questions are a valuable way of sizing up a situation, analyzing options, and avoiding mistakes. So, don't make assumptions, ask questions. Are you going in the right direction? Are there other options? Are there experts who can tell you how this has been done before? Are there suppliers (or field staff or customers) who can tell you what works for them? And note that questions alone are not enough – you must be willing to listen to the answers and open to the possibility that you made need to make changes as a result.  

8. When in doubt, decide. Reality is often fuzzy. Frequently there is no one path that is clearly better than the others, no matter how carefully we analyze the pros and cons. A test or trial is a good way to see whether or not an idea will work, but this is not always possible. In that case, a full-scale decision is the only option. Decisiveness is better than procrastination, because movement brings learning, which in turn creates better decisions. It also energizes others in the team, and shows them that action is better than sitting still.  

9. Create new routines. We spend most of our time dealing with existing issues and following the existing way of doing things. However, when we need to chart a new course of action, these habitual routines can prevent us from moving away from the past. Changing these routines will allow new things to happen.  

10. Know your second-best solution. In any organization people resources are invaluable. But life happens. A key member of your executive team may leave and you must be prepared with a succession plan. How can the project move forward, even without this player? At the same time, as you move towards a goal, it may become clear that not everyone initially assigned to a project is up to the task. Will you need to alter the task or someone working on it? Having a clear second-best solution will keep you on track no matter what happens.    

In measuring a company's success we often refer to profits or the bottom line when looking at the big picture. Yet neither of those can be purposefully impacted without the stellar performance of each individual executive. With these 10 rules, you can better ensure that your best minds will truly give their best.        

Jacques Horovitz is Professor Emeritus of Service Strategy, Service Marketing, and Service Management at IMD, where he teaches on the Orchestrating Winning Performance Program.  

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