Friction - The Enemy of Execution

Arky Ciancutti Have you noticed how carsand car engines in particular last many years longer today than they did just 10 years ago? It’s because manufacturers have improved the materials and lubricants they use for the moving parts. They looked at why engines were failing and found ways to prevent the wear, burn, and dislocation of the interfaces of moving parts. For example, synthetic lubricants were introduced to the market in the early 1970s, eventually reducing engine wear five-fold or more. New oil filter technology and improved design of combustion are reaching the point of virtually eliminating engine wear and making oil change unnecessary.

Our rules of engagement are focused on those parts of your business processes where work friction occurs, whether between members of the same team, between interdependent departments, or between merger and acquisition partners. In other words, work friction occurs in the interfaces between people. By interfaces between people, we mean just what you’d expect: the daily exchanges, communications, meetings, etc. that occur as requirements for superior execution in a busy enterprise. These are the moving parts of your business and it is those parts that you need to focus on, understand, and keep efficiently lubricated. Our method will transform your business and any or all of your teamsfrom adequate to robust. It will elicit dramatic results from your people.

“Friction” is a handy descriptor for many common processes, all of which impede effective execution. “Friction” results when your team members don’t reach clear agreement, or do reach agreement but without a clear definition of tasks and accountabilities, or without an agreed timeline, or with some team members remaining unclear about what the agreement is. It also occurs when team members understand the “what” of the agreement but do not fully commit.

They may say “Yes” but mean “Maybe,” or even “No.” It occurs when commitments are initially solid, but then needs change and adjustments don’t keep pace. It occurs in the all too common Us versus Them syndrome. It occurs when you deal ineffectively with marginal or poor performance, or when you perhaps unknowingly use fear to get results. It happens when the manager believes that “I did communicate it” but you really did not, and when your people nod but do not actually buy into the program. It happens big time when you create the impression that your company punishes risk-taking even if the risk was sound and the effort failed. It occurs when rewards are not shared as broadly as your employees think they should. Their sense of fair play is powerful, just like your own and they know who did what to achieve a particular result. Destructive friction occurs when your employees’ urge to be a part of the process, to contribute, and to be recognized for contributing is squelched through perceived disrespectful communication, inattention, non-response, or outright and automatic dismissal of ideas.

Note that all of these are habits of behavior throughout the organization. Fixing these problems of execution requires both changing habits at all points in the team as well as establishing a new style of leadership that engenders the appropriate atmosphere to support that change. You might wonder whether a few simple rules of behavior can cause an entire cultural change, a result that is an order of magnitude bigger in the output than is the input that causes it. Our answer is yes.

In the Seventeenth Century, certain members of the Dutch aristocracy were inspired by descriptions of Roman warfare. Mauritz, Prince of Orange, began the practice of standard drill with his troops, which eventually lead to a much greater capability to wage war along with a winning esprit de corps. Each time another army experienced defeat from facing a more practiced opponent, it too adopted the method, and as a result the rest of Europe caught on, leading to the standard practice that has lasted down to the present. Today, competitive sports have become big business. When Arky’s company coached the San Francisco 49ers physicians in the 49ers heyday, he heard the phrase “reps,” for “repetitions,” well, repeatedly, both in healing exercises and on the playing field. Professional coaching and systematic training have become necessary ingredients for sports success. For the Prince of Orange and for big-time sports, repetition of simple (physical and psychological) actions have shown order-of-magnitude improvement in results. In all of these cases, the use of standard drill lead to competitive advantage, a concept we take into the business domain in this book.

Our techniques, if introduced rigorously as the daily regimen of corporate exchangesas rules of engagementwill similarly multiply small habits developed throughout your company into exponential improvements in your execution.

Our Method
Our approach to creating the Engaged Organization involves a method that drives successful execution, and without which execution will fail randomly and repeatedly. The method involves simple principles and practice that may be familiar in a piecemeal fashion to the reader, but when assembled into a composite system virtually defines a new way of living, providing exponential improvement to execution.

The method includes two goals and one process. The following is a summary. For the remainder of this book we will present additional descriptions, examples, case studies, detailed how-to prescriptions, role playing, and other information necessary to bring to life this method in your team.

Goal 1: Closure. Closure means ending each transaction with a delivery promise that includes time. Closure is a mutually agreed agreement for action plus a date. The deliverable can be final or intermediate. Final closure means a promise for a hard deliverable, such as “I’ll get you the draft budget by 5 PM tomorrow.” Intermediate closure means providing a time for a time: “I’ll get you a time for delivery of the draft budget by 5 PM tomorrow.” Our method is based on the principle that closure is always possible and must be achieved in every business interaction. Closure eliminates uncertainty; without closure things often do not get done. Our great surprise is that this essential feature of our method has been overlooked in business literature. Our method recognizes that closure is critical to execution and places it center stage.

Goal 2: Authentic Commitment. Commitment goes to the credibility of the promise contained within closure. Commitment should always be authentic, but its shortfall from that ideal accounts for many of the problems seen in execution. Hence we distinguish between two types of commitment: authentic and false. Authentic commitment is an unconditional promise, though not a guarantee, and a pure intention to deliver on time. A false commitment means saying “Yes” and meaning “Maybe” or “No,” and usually involves silent reservations about delivering on time. Without authentic commitment closure will fail.

Process: Closure Communication: Both closure and authentic commitment are necessary for effectiveness. Closure communication is the means to get to both. Closure communication consists of two major components. The first involves seven key communication tools that increase the effectiveness of your communication. The second includes six steps to closure, the culminating process summarized in Chapter 7, that knits together all the skills and methods described in this book. Along the way, we detail execution strategies in especially challenging circumstances, such as conflict situations and Us versus Them situations between departments, locations and merger partners The combination of the communication tools and the six steps ensures that closure and authentic commitment will happen in virtually any business situation. The manager uses these tools consistently and repetitively, and requires their use throughout the team, department, division or organization.

Our method therefore extracts from high-stakes sports analogies the notion of standard practice or drill, and places it in the business context of execution. Rather than the parade ground or sports arena, the method becomes a regular part of life in business. The practice is continuous and interwoven with execution itself. Unlike tuning one’s engine before embarking on that long trip, the tuning continues during the entire trip.

The Meta-Manager
Developing the Engaged Organization requires, as we will describe in detail, a new kind of leadership, one much closer to Collin‘s “great” leaders. We might call this the meta-manager, as he or she must now carry out two complementary tasks at the same time: managing the content of the operation in its usual dimensions, plus managing the establishment of a system in which the Engaged Organization emerges. The former has to do with the business of the day: putting together the marketing program, getting the product out, closing the sale, preparing the financial statements, and the like. The latter means watching how the team is following through on using closure and authentic commitment, monitoring the quality of communication, and, most importantly, monitoring one’s own self to ensure you, the leader, are leading by example. This two-layer approach is clearly more complex than the old unitary method, and takes an expanded awareness to maintain the balance between the two. Our focus is not on telling you the manager how to run the content of your business, but rather how to add this second layer to ensure its success. None of this, on some reflection, is surprising. If you want to cross the desert in your jeep, you will want to ensure the engine is running well as it is the engine that will get you across, not you yourself. Likewise, it is the team that will be doing the business execution, not you the leader, and you need to ensure its smooth functioning if you are to get to your intended destination.

Fortunately, given that both the principles and practice behind this method are directly and easily learned, this new role can be implemented quickly and the resulting effect experienced rapidly.

Copyright December 2004, Arky Ciancutti, M.D. and Thomas Steding, Ph.D.
All rights, including rights of reproduction and distribution, are reserved.

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