October 8, 2019

Why you need the 4 Disciplines of Execution in Analytics

By Paul Laughlin

When I talk with Data & Analytics leaders, a common challenge they mention is with execution. Getting work delivered & acted upon or implemented.

So much good thinking & methodology during the early stages & technical development can be wasted by final execution.

For that reason, I thought it would be helpful to share another book that I recommend. One that many others recommended to me. “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey & Jim Huling.

Why this book will help you

Given my respect for Stephen Covey and his ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People‘, it’s surprising that I didn’t sooner get myself a copy of this more recent classic from Franklin Covey. It is such a helpful guide to leaders.

The magic of the focus & approach of this book is the way it shares things you can immediately start implementing. It really is focussed on execution and the sooner you start doing while reading the better.

As Harry Powell shared when he explained the Productivity Puzzle for Analytics leaders, many of us struggle to improve delivery. The 6 elements he points out for focus all matter. These 4 disciplines (and advice on how to implement them) can be another key to achieving prioritisation & improved delivery.

Here is what to expect and why you should approach this book as a guide to your action, rather than wait until you’ve finished to change your ways.

The 4 Disciplines of Execution

The first part of the book explains the 4 disciplines and how they build on each other. Called 4DX for short, they can be summarised quite briefly, but the real magic is in making these consistent habits. The word discipline is an important theme for this approach.

Here are the 4DX in summary:

Focus on the Wildy Important

This involves setting Wildly Important Goals (or WIGs, which is an amusing mental image). Getting this right is all about prioritisation. I’ve shared before how that can help with time management.

One aspect I like here is the reality of how busy you will be keeping you Business As Usual work on track. They use the analogy of the ‘whirlwind‘ to typify what sucks up 80% of your time at work.

Setting your WIG is about identifying what will make the biggest impact if that is the only other thing you deliver. Assume you have to feed the whirlwind, out of everything else you could change/deliver, what one thing would give you biggest benefit.

There is also useful advice about levels of WIGs throughout the organisation & division of labour (no duplication).

Act on the Lead Measures

I had already begun to see the benefit of this when working with my own business mentor. This is about identifying those metrics that make it more likely you will succeed, but are not measured after the event.

Too many leaders & scorecards focus on lagging measures. Projects completed, models delivered, stakeholder satisfaction, financial returns etc. However, these are not things you can immediately change, they are symptoms not the cause of any delivery issues.

Leading measures breakdown the delivery lifecycle into those things that need to be achieved among the way. For instance, data quality, data availability & prep, skill levels, prioritisation meetings, throughput, collaboration, code reviews etc. Inputs that can have clear owners.

Keep a compelling Scorecard

This is about making the right metrics visible. Transparency and accountability. Ensuring every member of your team can know how they & others are doing. This enables responsive reprioritisation of work, collaboration and identification of issues or development needs.

Data Visualisation principles help here but are not covered in this book. For how those can help you improve the presentation of dashboards, see my recommended Data Viz books. What the authors do make clear is, like agile working principles, this scorecard needs to be visible to all and up-to-date.

This book does help you through 4 tests to assess if a performance scorecard for your team is effective:

  1. Is it simple?
  2. Can I see it easily?
  3. Does it show lead or lag measures?
  4. Can I tell at a glance if I’m winning?

Create a Cadence of Accountability

This is all about creating a new habit. The authors describe the need to create and maintain a weekly 30minute standup meeting. It has a set agenda to provide a speedy review of everyone’s progress or issues against the WIGs.

For this meeting (that overlaps with the concept of standup meetings in a number of Agile methodologies), they recommend listening. You should be hearing the following types of language in each section of the agenda:

Account: Report on commitments

“I committed to make a personal call to 3 customers who gave us low scores. I did and this is what I learned…”

Review the scoreboard: Learn from success & failure

“Our lag measure is green, but we’ve got a challenge with one of our lead measures that just fell to yellow. Here’s what happened…”

Plan: Clear the path for new commitments

“I’ll meet with Bob on our numbers and come back next week with at least three ideas for helping us improve.”

There are some really good tips in this chapter for creating personal accountability. A culture change that many analytics teams fail to achieve and so don’t realise the benefits of agile or other methods.

Implementing the 4DX in your team/business

The next two parts of the book get practical with how to implement the above approach. This is also encouraging. They do not just share a neat theory and leave you to sort out how to make it work.

Sections outline what to set as your expectations and how to implement each of the four disciplines. Too much detail to go into in this short book review, but a really useful field guide.

What struck me most, especially in part 3 which is about implenting 4DX in your own team, is how relevant the advice is for Analytics leaders. The questions you have to ask yourself work well for those looking to design an Analytics team that visibly adds value to the business.

The book closes with how to roll-out this approach across an organisation. Some of this advice is most relevant to CEO & executives. However, they are also useful tips for those working to improve their influence with key stakeholders. Useful guideline for Business Partners and those looking to take a coaching approach to working with other leaders.

Have you implemented 4 disciplines of execution in your business?

I hope that book review was useful to you if you’ve not come across this book yet. I’d recommend it to all leaders looking to improve the execution track record of their team.

But, I’m also interested to hear from those who have read the already. Have you experienced following this advice to implement 4DX in your team or wider? If so, I’d love to hear from you and share a second post on lessons learnt from 4DX in practice.

Let’s keep sharing as insight leaders & staying honest about how we consistently improve delivery (and that it’s not easy).