Pursue Progress, Not Perfection How to accelerate the achievement of your organization’s most important business outcomes

How to accelerate the achievement of your organization’s most important business outcomes

a white paper by Dan Coughlin

Perfection is an illusion. Pursuing it is both dysfunctional and a waste of time. Perfectionism is kin to arrogance and a cousin of low self-esteem. There ain’t no perfect individual, group, or organization. There are only people making progress, and those who aren’t. It’s really that simple.

In a classic episode of the hot new television show, Desperate Housewives, one character literally takes ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) pills to become more hyperactive and, theoretically, to accomplish even more as the perfect mother. In the end, she collapses. The pursuit of perfection nearly killed her.

Don’t pursue perfection; pursue progress. Every long-term successful group got there by getting a little better each day. My good friend, Dr. Alan Weiss, calls it The 1% SolutionTM, which says, “Improve by 1% every day and in 70 days you will be twice as good as you are right now.” The week before he retired, Jerry Yeagley, the most successful coach in NCAA Division I soccer history, said the key to his six national championships at Indiana University was the IU Soccer Player. He used this term to describe his typical player over the years. He said one attribute of the IU Soccer Player was the constant desire to improve at every practice and during every game. Ram Charan, the well-known business consultant, wrote in his book, Profitable Growth Is Everyone’s Business (Crown Business, New York, 2004) that the key is to “hit many singles and doubles, not just home runs.” His point is that success is the result of many small victories accumulated over time.

Having said that, here are 10 Progress Areas for your organization to focus on. By making steady and consistent progress in each of these areas, you will accelerate the achievement of your organization’s most important business outcomes.

Progress Area #1: Purpose

Before doing anything else, take the time to clarify the purpose of your group or organization. This is not an existential or philosophical discussion. This is a pragmatic business step. If you are not clear as to the purpose of your organization and work group, then you can never determine if your activities are effective or not. You will simply be working very hard for a very long time. You will sometimes grow your business profitably and sometimes not, but it will always be an erratic performance regardless of how hard you work or how many hours you put in.

One of the best organizations I’ve ever seen on this topic is GSD&M, the great advertising agency based in Austin, Texas. They help companies clarify their purpose, and then they help them channel it into all of their advertising in a way that both prospects and customers clearly understand their purpose. This has enormous benefits for their clients because it makes their advertising much more effective in terms of attracting the types of customers they want. They have had long-term relationships with great clients like Southwest Airlines and Wal-Mart.

Progress Question #1: What is the purpose of your organization and/or business group?

Progress Area #2: Business Reality

Companies that try to avoid dealing with reality are doomed to fail. If the market conditions shift dramatically in a permanent manner, you have to respond to that shift. Mass retailers and manufacturers who don’t realize the impact China has had on falling prices will definitely fall out of favor with consumers.

Make a list of the important trends your customers display on a regular basis. Ask yourself if you think these changes are permanent or temporary. Look for facts to back up your rationale. Identify how these trends affect your products, services, prices, and industry. The more progress you make in terms of understanding the market conditions, the better prepared you are to shift your strategy, products, services, prices, and targeted customers if needed. I recommend a terrific book called, Confronting Reality (Crown Business, 2004, New York) by Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy. It really solidifies this broad concept and makes it extremely clear.

Progress Question #2: What are the real market conditions you are dealing with?

Progress Area #3: Organizational Assets

In order to increase your chances of winning any competition, you need to know what strengths you have to leverage. In this respect, business actually is like sports. A sports team can win more games than people expect by putting their strengths in a position to beat the opponent. Invest time and energy in better understanding your organization. Clarify the behaviors your employees consistently demonstrate, the type of work they are passionate about, and their strongest technical skills. By improving your understanding of your current employees, you will better understand how to leverage their strengths and identify what types of employees you need to hire to fill in any of the missing gaps.

Progress Question #3: What behaviors, passions, and technical competencies do the people in your organization consistently display?

Progress Area #4: Organizational Objectives

Make sure every employee has in front of them the two or three most important business outcomes your organization is working to achieve this year. That in and of itself requires a lot of work. It means the top executives have clarified the annual milestones necessary to demonstrate your organization is moving forward to achieve significant, sustainable, and profitable growth. It means these outcomes are not going to just be temporary highpoints that throw your company into a year-long tizzy and destroy long-term success. While sales, operating income, and cash flow goals could certainly make the list, so could the improvement of the customer’s experience, the efficiency with which products and services are delivered, and the improvement of the quality of those goods and services. Be clear as to what the most important outcomes should be for this year.

Then within your work group, take the time to clarify the two or three most important outcomes that the group can deliver to support the organization’s desired outcomes. The keys here are discipline, commitment, and sacrifice. You can’t have 15 equally important outcomes. It doesn’t work that way. By investing the time in better clarifying the most important desired outcomes, the better your chances are of hitting them.

Progress Question #4: What are the two or three most important outcomes your organization wants to achieve this year, and what are the two or three most important outcomes your work group needs to achieve this year to support your organization’s objectives?

Progress Area #5: Strategy

If you’ve really done your homework up to this point, then you are in a great position to clarify an effective strategy for your organization or business unit.

A strategy is a guideline for making decisions. It defines an organization, or a part of an organization, and the direction it is moving in. It clarifies the approach the organization or group will take toward the marketplace. No strategy is effective or ineffective in and of itself. It is only effective in relationship to the organization’s assets, the market conditions, and the organization’s desired outcomes.

If you put a large child and a small child on a see saw, the large child will win every time and stick the small child up in the air. However, if the fulcrum is moved towards the larger child, the small child can gain the leverage he needs to stick the larger child in the air. All parts of your business are represented by the see saw analogy. Your organization’s assets sit on one end of the see saw, your organization’s outcomes sit on the other end, the see saw itself represents the market conditions, and the point where you place the fulcrum represents your organization’s strategy. This relationship is shown in Figure 1.

As you look at the four components, notice the only one you have no control over is the current set of market conditions. You can improve your organizational strengths, you can adjust your strategy, and ultimately you can improve your outcomes. However, to significantly improve the behaviors, passions, and skills in your organization is going to take a great deal of time. Oftentimes, this can become an endless loop of trying to be like someone else’s organization. Rather than believing the grass is always greener at the corporation next door, look to leverage the strengths you currently have by improving your strategy.

A poor strategy generates far worse results than an organization is capable of generating. A mediocre strategy generates an average return on the organization’s assets. A great strategy gives the organization extraordinary leverage and can lift extraordinary outcomes from the market place.

To enhance this point, recall the famous example of Michael Dell. A little over 20 years ago, he was assembling computers in his college dorm room and selling them directly to customers at prices far cheaper than the competition. He could have assembled them, sold them to retail stores, and made a tidy little profit. However, he would have had no leverage. Lots of other companies were doing that. He also would have lost his ability to customize the computer to the customer’s needs. By maintaining his direct selling strategy, he differentiated himself from the competition, maintained extraordinarily low prices, provided customized computer solutions, and absolutely blew away the competition. In other words, he leveraged his strengths and generated unbelievable results.

Of course, your organization’s strategy has to fit within its purpose as an organization. If you manufacture cars and the purpose of your organization is to democratize the car purchasing process, you can’t have ludicrously expensive mandatory items in your automobiles in order to grow cash flow. That strategy wouldn’t align with your organization’s purpose.

Progress Question #5: Based on the market conditions, your organization’s strengths, and your organization’s desired outcomes, what should be your organization’s approach to the market place in order to achieve success in a sustainable manner?

Progress Area #6: Leadership

To me, leadership means influencing how other people think in ways that generate better sustainable results for your organization and the people in it. If you don’t have leaders at every level in your organization, then you can’t continually accelerate the achievement of your organization’s highest priority business outcomes. Without leaders spread throughout the organization, all you have are doers. These are the employees who will do whatever they’re told to do, but who won’t effectively influence the way people think.

Leaders are not born. They are developed. It requires work to develop the skill of being able to effectively influence the way other people think. In order to make progress in this area, you need to dedicate time to working with other people. You can help them improve their leadership skills through modeling the proper behavior, through coaching and following up with them, and through providing them with a variety of opportunities to learn how to influence other people.

Progress Question #6: How will you become a more effective influencer this year, and how will you help other people develop these skills as well?

Progress Area #7: Management

I believe the role of a manager entails the following:

  • Constantly examining the business reality surrounding the organization.
  • Working with key constituents to develop a strategy and tactics necessary to generate success.
  • Determining what types of employees are necessary to succeed within that reality.
  • Developing current employees to succeed in that changing reality.
  • Hiring the right people to accelerate the organization in a sustainable manner, and letting go of employees who can not or will not be effective for the organization.
  • Holding people accountable both for their behaviors and their results.

Progress Question #7: As you look at the various responsibilities of a manager, how can you make progress in any or all of these areas?

Progress Area #8: Teamwork

Teamwork is the easiest business concept to explain, and one of the hardest to make a reality. Teamwork means a group of people supporting one another toward achieving a meaningful purpose. In Figure 2 I’ve broken that statement into two parts: purpose and support.

As you can see, there are four types of groups:

Quadrant I – The members of this group have no sense of purpose and they do not support one another. This is a real tragedy. People simply show up each day because they have to in order to get their paycheck.

Quadrant II – This is where members of the group have a huge sense of purpose, but they do nothing to support one another. This is La-La Land. A lot of dot com companies lived in this quadrant in the late 1990s.

Quadrant III – In this situation, the members of the group support one another, but they have no purpose they are trying to fulfill. I have another name for this. It’s called a party. “I’ll support you in having a great time even though we really have no purpose as a group.”

Quadrant IV – This is the place where great teamwork occurs. Members support one another and everyone has a common sense of purpose. Being in these situations is what people dream about. This is where work becomes rewarding and meaningful. This is where people pull together to achieve the unimaginable. You can achieve short-term great results without teamwork, but you can’t sustain your success without it.

Progress Question #8: How are you helping the members of your group better understand the purpose of the group and better support each other’s efforts?

Progress Area #9: Execution

Of course, purpose, strategy, planning, and leadership are useless if the plans are not converted into meaningful actions that generate the desired results. In my experience, this is the most common area where organizations break down. They get lost in their own chaos and never convert their good intentions into actions that generate meaningful results. Execution is the dry part of business, and it’s the part that separates the long-term successful organizations from the ones who never break through consistently.

This is really the nuts and bolts of success.

Take all of your organization’s activities and place them on a 12-Month Calendar. Show when the activity is supposed to start and when it is supposed to end. Do this for all the functions in your organization.

Then look across all the months and answer this question:

Are these activities sequenced in a manner that they will optimize the strategy for our business? If not, what would be a better sequence of events for this year?

Then look at the activities for each month and answer this question:

If we do all of these activities in this month, will the employees in any part of our organization be overwhelmed to the point they will hurt our results? If yes, could we cancel or reschedule some of these activities? Where should the activities be placed now?

Once you have this Execution Calendar finalized, you now have the marching orders for the year. Yes, you can and probably will make adjustments as the year unfolds, but as you do that make sure it happens in a conscious manner. In other words, if you’re going to add a new initiative to your organization, then carefully identify what is going to come off of the Execution Calendar and what is going to be moved to another date. Without this conscious calendar management, you basically are going to fall back into the age- old trap of just doing a bunch of stuff and hoping for the best.

Progress Question #9: How can you consolidate all of the activities in your organization on to a single calendar and analyze it to generate better performance over the next 12 months?

Progress Area #10: Refocus

This process of steadily making progress is an on-going affair. Doing one iteration of these steps will simply improve performance one time. The goal is to make the pursuit of progress a critical and on-going part of your organization. Imagine every function in your organization continually getting better in each of the first nine progress areas. The collective impact would drive the performance bar in your organization higher and higher.
You will have succeeded when you get employees to pursue progress on a daily basis. For many years I have encouraged my clients to answer the following set of questions on a regular basis. I call them The Bar Raising Questions:

For a given project:

      1. What was our goal when we began this project?
2. What did we actually achieve?
3. What did we do that was effective in generating the desired outcome?
4. What did we do that was not effective?
5. What could we have done differently that may have been more effective?

For your organization:

     6. How can we make our purpose clearer to our employees and customers?
7. How can we improve our organization to better support our strategy?
8. How can we refine our strategy to make it even more effective?
9. How can we do a better job of executing our planned actions?
10. How can we do a better job of influencing the way people think in order to generate better, sustainable results?

Progress Question #10: How can you get the employees in your organization to refocus on the importance of constantly making progress?

At the end of the day, the most important measuring stick is, “Have I helped to make the organization better today than it was yesterday?” If you can say yes over and over again, you will help your organization accelerate the achievement of its most important business outcomes.

Dan Coughlin works with executives to accelerate the achievement of their most important business outcomes.

About Dan Coughlin

Visit Dan Coughlin’s Free Resource Center on Business Acceleration

Dan Coughlin teaches practical ideas on how to improve business performance. He is a business keynote speaker, management consultant, executive coach, and author of four books on leadership, sales, branding, and innovation. His books including The Management 500, and Find a Way to Win. His clients include GE Capital, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Marriott, Boeing, Abbott, Toyota, Subway, Kiewit, Prudential, Denny’s, and the St. Louis Cardinals.