Execution Means Accomplishing What You Planned

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 12, Issue No. 8
November, 2013

By Dan Coughlin



Execution is accomplishing what you planned.

Execution is not developing a strategy or a plan. It is doing what you planned to do. If you execute well and don’t get the desired results, then you need to reexamine your strategy and plan to see what can be improved. If you don’t execute well and don’t do a good job in finishing off what you planned, you don’t really know if the strategy or the plan would have worked and you might end up sticking with a poor strategy or a weak plan.

You cannot consistently improve results and generate sustainable profitable growth without great execution. Great execution does not guarantee great results, but you cannot consistently achieve great results without great execution. You need a great strategy plus a great plan plus great execution in order to have the opportunity to consistently achieve great results.

On my bookshelves I have nine books on strategy totaling more than 2,500 pages. Good golly, is it really that complicated? A strategy is a statement that defines the type of business your organization is in and the type of activities the people in your company will do in the future. A fancier way to say this from strategy guru Benjamin Tregoe is “a strategy is the framework which guides those choices that determine the nature and direction of an organization.” This is from his book, Top Management Strategy. From the strategy, you establish tactics and a plan of action. This plan becomes your roadmap for the entire organization to follow.

I believe the breakdown on the road to better results for organizations is almost always with execution. This is true for two reasons. One, poor execution can keep a great strategy and plan from fulfilling their potential. Two, poor execution keeps executives from really understanding how to improve their strategy and plan. It keeps them from knowing what they need to know to make things better.


When I work with a business leader as an executive coach, I often share the analogy of the three types of bowlers. A great bowler knocks down all or most the pins on every throw. A weak bowler knocks down few or none of the pins on every throw. Both the great and the weak bowler can assess their performance and keep doing what is working well and make any necessary adjustments to improve their performance in the future. However, the most dangerous type of bowler is the one who throws a ball toward the pins, but before it knocks any pins down or goes in the gutter he or she throws another ball and then another ball and then another ball. Now there are four balls in the lane and none of them have knocked any pins down or gone into the gutter. They are just rolling and rolling and rolling…

The most dangerous type of business executive is not the one who succeeds or fails, but rather the one who keeps starting up new projects without ever completing any of them. When a project succeeds or fails, you can step back and reflect on what you’ve done that worked well and didn’t work well and you can make improvements. However, if you just keep starting up new projects, you never put yourself in a position to learn what made for a success or a failure.

I wonder if some business executives just keep starting up new projects in order to avoid ever being judged on any of them. These people can always say, “Well, none of the projects are fully completed so it’s hard to judge the success or failure of any of them.” While it’s true that none of the projects have been completed, I would say that the executive can be judged as a failure. He or she didn’t accomplish anything. This person just kept rolling one bowling ball after another until all the employees are just “working on projects” and none of them are ever completing any of them.

Set a reasonable deadline and hold yourself accountable to actual results. Otherwise you’ll never learn anything. It is true that some projects take a lot longer than others. It takes Disney Pixar Animation Studios four years to make a film, but they still have a deadline, they focus on completing one or two films every year, and they execute at an incredibly high level.


On the way to going upstairs to my office to write this article I walked by the dishwasher in our kitchen and I realized it was full of clean dishes. I started putting the dishes away and then I thought about this article. I thought to myself, “I’ll finish emptying the dishwasher later.” I closed the door and started to leave the kitchen, and then I realized what I was doing. I was starting a project and then I was leaving it before it was finished. If my wife, Barb, got to the dishwasher before I did she wouldn’t know for sure if the dishes left in there were clean or dirty. That would have thrown her off. So I went back and emptied the dishwasher all the way and then went to my office to start writing.

The same thing happens inside a lot of businesses. People start up a project and then they leave it to come back to later. The problem is this throws off people throughout the organization. For example, if a salesperson commits to meet with a customer on a sensitive topic and then decides to postpone that meeting but doesn’t tell anybody that the meeting has been postponed, other people in the organization might start moving ahead with the assumption that the customer has been informed. Then they don’t realize that the customer doesn’t know why they are doing things in a new way, and the customer relationship has been ruined.

Remember: empty the dishwasher all the way before you start up another project.


Execution requires staying focused on a project until it is completed. It is not sexy or exciting, but it is crucial if you want to generate sustainable profitable growth. Execution requires the discipline to work toward a deadline and to not start up new projects whenever the mood hits you.

I’m reading a book called The Carving of Mount Rushmore by Rex Alan Smith. Last summer, Barb and our two children, Sarah and Ben, went to Mount Rushmore. It was a truly breathtaking sight. I just sat there for a very long time and stared at this amazing sculpture. Then I started watching the films about its creation. Then, of course, I bought a book about it. The idea for carving a mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota began in 1923 and wasn’t completed until 1941. 18 years seems like a very long time for one project. It seems like poor execution. In reality it is an extraordinary story of execution, of staying focused through all the criticism, through trying to raise money during the Great Depression, and through all of the technological challenges of carving a mountain. In the end, this sculpture has barely changed in over 70 years and two million people go to visit it every year. It is a project that has stood the test of time.

How can you execute so well that your project can succeed over the long term? It requires focus and attention and discipline. It might feel like grunt work, but the impact can be extraordinary.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at dan@thecoughlincompany.com with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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