The 4 Disciplines of Execution – Keeping Score

By Kay C Dee
Associate Dean for Learning & Technology

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

In The 4 Disciplines of Execution, the authors claim that “People give less than their best and finest effort if no one is keeping score — it’s just human nature” (pg 155). I may be revealing too much about myself when I confess that I had a small fit of impotent fury over this (to be honest, brief fits of impotent fury are not uncommon events for me), but the claim in question sounded like an evidence-free assertion at best, and ‘begging the question’ at worst. While constructing fierce internal philosophical arguments on the question of whether one’s best and finest efforts can be intrinsically inspired, I began to mentally challenge the assertion that people “play differently when they are keeping score” (pg. 155).

I am mildly chagrined to report that it does appear that people play differently when they are keeping score. For example, a meta-analysis by Harkin et al., published in Psychological Bulletin and freely downloadable, found that monitoring progress toward a goal promoted the attainment of that goal. Furthermore, “…monitoring progress in public and physically recording progress had larger effects on goal attainment than monitoring that was done in private and not recorded” (pg. 219).

This aligns with suggestions in The 4 Disciplines of Execution about keeping a compelling scoreboard. The authors suggest that the individuals working toward a goal should be the ones who design and use the scoreboard to record/monitor progress (instead of, for example, the person to whom these individuals report). The authors also suggest that these individuals should all be able to see the scoreboard change quickly as measures of progress change.

Learning again from Harkin et al., people implementing Discipline 3 should carefully choose what to monitor and report, since “…monitoring behavior is more likely to lead to changes in behavior than is monitoring outcomes, whereas changes in outcomes are more likely to occur when people monitor outcomes rather than behaviors” (pg. 219). So, if the goal is, for example, to establish a habit of writing for five hours per week, the amount of time spent per week should be tracked and reported. If the goal is an outcome instead of a process (say, to finish writing a chapter), then an outcome-oriented goal (e.g., some number of paragraphs or words written each day) would be a better goal to track and report.

In addition, The 4 Disciplines of Execution authors advise readers to choose a theme for their compelling scorecard. I would paraphrase this instead as “decide what type of journey toward a goal you are travelling, and select an appropriate visual display.” Is the goal to establish a habit? Then the journey is one of commitment to doing some activity repeatedly over some period of time, and a calendar or daily/weekly check list would be a good scorecard format. Is part of the goal to attain or maintain some quantifiable or qualitative state of affairs (zero requests waiting in a queue, or all projects ‘on track’)? Then a numeric gauge display, such as a speedometer, or a qualitative display of a current state or condition, such as a stoplight (is progress going well, moving cautiously, or stopped?), or perhaps even hospital ‘pain faces’ would be appropriate. Finally, if attainment of the goal can be quantitatively described with a start point, an end point, and a timeline for achievement, an x-y plot would be an appropriate scorecard – displaying the journey “From X to Y by when”, as the authors phrase it.

I belong to an academic workgroup of thirteen individuals with a broad range of responsibilities. Institutional research, library management, online learning, student competition teams, and faculty leadership are all represented. We have set individual goals related to our institution’s academic master plan, and selected lead and lag measures for these goals. We have established a shared spreadsheet with an individual tab for each person and individualized scorecards for each person’s measures. Each individual can enter their weekly progress on their spreadsheet tab, and we can all see our comparative progress toward enacting the habit of devoting five hours of work each week to our goals. Updates are due each week at a brief stand-up meeting or via conference call. So far, the peer pressure to report achievement of the weekly goals has been perceptible, but gentle and not shame-filled. Since we are only in the early stages of this process, I can’t report whether individuals are producing more outcomes or more firmly establishing desired habits. However, I can report that the idea of keeping a compelling scorecard is in itself a compelling idea for colleagues that are visually- or graphically-oriented. I can also report that the members of my own sub-team who have read The 4 Disciplines of Execution are starting to use terms from the book, and are specifically talking about scorecard design in (positive!) anticipation of this coming summer’s strategic planning and goal-setting.

[1] Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, Jim Huling, “The 4 disciplines of execution: achieving your wildly important goals,” 1st edition (2012), Free Press, New York. First Free Press trade paperback edition April 2016. ISBN 978-1-4516-2706-0 (pbk)

[2] Benjamin Harkin, Thomas Webb, Betty Chang, Andrew Prestwich, Mark Conner, Ian Kellar, Yael Benn, Pachal Sheeran, “Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence,” Psychological Bulletin, 142(2):198-229, 2016

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