The CIO Reading List: Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done

“Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.” So goes an ancient Japanese proverb.

As a CIO, you know better than most how important it is to balance vision and action: Even the best plan can fail because of poor execution. From digital transformation to cloud migration or organizational optimization, the devil is in the details.

The CIO Reading List: Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done
The CIO Reading List

This month’s CIO Reading List book, Execution: The discipline of getting things done, takes a long, hard look at why some plans succeed and others fail. And how you can turn your vision into a successful reality.

Larry Bossidy, former chairman of Honeywell and a 30-year veteran at GE, teamed up with business adviser Ram Charan to write this very readable guide to getting the job done. It’s a fascinating analysis of the disconnection between strategy and execution. When strategies fail, they say, there’s an almost irresistible human urge to blame the strategy—when in fact, the culprit is often poor execution.

Right up front, they identify three core processes of execution: strategy, people and operations. But as Bossidy and Charan make very clear, it’s not enough to get each one right individually; they’re completely interlinked, so there needs to be close coordination between all three to make sure they’re aligned and complementary.

The authors then outline seven essential behaviors that you must adopt to execute well:

  • Know your people (through honest and candid feedback) and your business (by paying close attention to detail).
  • Insist on realism, by avoiding a rosy view of the future that masks the problems confronting the organization.
  • Identify clear goals and priorities, breaking down those goals into the steps necessary to achieve them, and identifying the associated risks.
  • Follow through, with milestones and clearly identified roles and responsibilities. Incorporate flexibility to make course corrections as conditions change.
  • Reward the doers—but ensure that you’re using the correct metrics, so you’re rewarding not just activity, but strategic goals that have been met.
  • Expand people’s capabilities through education and training, as an investment in the company’s future.
  • Know yourself, which means knowing your blind spots, and avoiding a culture where “the CEO is always right” (or in our case, the CIO).

You’d expect a book about execution to practice what it preaches, and this one certainly does. It’s fast-paced and highly practical, with a variety of real-world case studies. We find out what JP Morgan got right and Citigroup got wrong, and why Walmart should have taken a leaf out of Costco’s book.

I like Execution because it doesn’t pull its punches, and doesn’t get lost in theoretical musings or meaningless jargon. And while it debuted in 2002, it’s one of those that I reread every couple of years when I find myself needing a reminder that coordinated execution is the most important part of an effective leader’s job and the key to strategy turning into a set of impactful outcomes.

Once we realize that, we can take the necessary steps to fix our execution to ensure that our vision doesn’t remain a daydream—or worse, turn into a nightmare.

I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. As ever, please give me your feedback either in the comments section below, or via Twitter.