Do the Right Things

By: Ella Ingram,
Associate Dean for Professional Development

This post is the first in a two-part series on executing strategic initiatives.

Change agents are faced with endless options for what to do next. Draft that strategic plan? Plan a team meeting? Read that new national report? All are important, and all are relevant to achieving the desired change, but it’s hard to decide where time is best spent. McChesney, Covey, and Huling’s Four Disciplines of Execution (4DX) gives us some guidance in answering this question. Lasting change – the kind change agents aspire to – must occur during the whirlwind, the authors’ term for the daily press of work centered on keeping the organization operational. The 4DX model addresses how to make change occur as the whirlwind continues. Although 4DX comes from the business world, it has been used successfully by academic organizations (see the 4DX website for examples).

The first discipline of 4DX is an easy one for change agents: focus on the wildly important, meaning the one strategic goal that matters more than all the others. In 4DX lingo, the Wildly Important Goal (WIG) is the outcome that everyone has bought into. Professionals driven to accomplish the hard work of change know where they are and where they want to be, what 4DX frames as “from X to Y by when” when defining the WIG. With a solid WIG in place, the second discipline – act on lead measures – is where the work of change agents really begins.

Lead Measures

Academic professionals are intimately familiar with learning objectives and learning outcomes. The infamous “Students will be able to…” defines a desirable end state, and is used to frame what will happen to lead to that end state. The second discipline turns this familiar idea on its head and instead says, essentially, if you do these things, your end state will likely occur. “These things” are the lead measures. They are like the early-in-the-semester quiz scores that are pretty good indicators of the final grade. Acting early to create desirable quiz scores is likely to lead to a desirable final grade. Similarly, acting early to accomplish the lead measures is likely to lead to a desirable end state defined by the wildly important goal.

Good lead measures share a few features. First, they should be completely under the control of the change agent. “Amount of money raised” is an excellent metric, but it is subject to budget pressure, grant competition, and market forces. In contrast, “Number of proposals submitted” is a possible lead measure that is largely a function of the input of the change agent. Second, lead measures should be highly predictive of success. “Number of events in the spring semester” would serve as a good lead measure only if events are predictive to the wildly important goal. Predictiveness is tricky and change agents should consider utilizing any information available to assess predictive ability. Third, lead measures should occur regularly enough to count and report on to the change team. For a change project anticipated to take 18 months, a bi-monthly occurring activity that served as the lead measure would only provide a handful of opportunities during the project. A better lead measure would be regularly occurring and short in duration. Think “number of professional contacts made via email” rather than

“number of professional relationships cultivated to collaborator status”. By keeping lead measures under their control, choosing lead measures that are predictive of the desired outcome, and making lead measures incremental and recurrent, change agents can show repeated, dramatic progress to achieving their change.

Priority Management Made Easy

When faced with choices about what to do next, change agents can use their lead measures to decide. Reading a national report might be exactly the right task if “find two relevant references per week” is one of the project’s lead measures. Similarly, planning a team meeting of collaborative brainstorming would be the right choice if “number of putative solutions generated” is a lead measure. Prioritization is simple: act on the lead measure. If the lead measure is chosen correctly, any action to accomplish it is by definition action directed toward success of the change effort.

Next week: The Third Discipline – Keep a Compelling Scorecard

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