A call to action, not theory…

Bob Prosen just published a very nice book, Kiss Theory Goodbye, on the need for action–and actionable advice–rather than another theory of how business works. It’s refreshing in its call for returning to the basics, sort of like how I imagine Bobby Knight might view management: if you can’t dribble with both hands, master the bounce pass, and shoot the jumper, all the rest doesn’t matter. After my post on “How to read a business book”, we got to talking. Here’s the jist of the conversation:

1. If you could ask one question (or look at one behavior) to gauge the “execution” skills of an individual, what would it be?

I would ask this simple question, “Can you tell me your top three objectives and, as of today, how are you performing against each of them?” Every leader should be able to answer this on the spot without hesitation.

2. If you could measure one behavior to gauge the “execution” skills of a company, what would it be?

The most important measurement is the company’s track record at meeting their profitability objectives. Increasing positive net cash flow is king of the hill. A great way to gauge a company’s execution skills is the number of “effective” meetings they have. If meetings have an agenda, are time bound, action items are captured and completed on time and people are willingly offering assistance to one another, that’s a company focused on results.

3. You’ve spent a lot of time working with individuals and organizations–helping them be more effective. What have you learned about making your own consulting more effective?

Two important things come to mind.

  1. Pick the most important things to work on and see them through to completion. Don’t get distracted. Stay focused on the significant few, not the important many.
  2. Do what I do best. In other words, only work on customer opportunities that are right in my “sweet spot”. And, outsource tasks to other professionals whenever possible so I can spend my time doing what I do best–teaching and speaking.

4. Your book focuses on managing execution in existing companies–what are the critical execution skills in managing innovation, where clear directions and constant measurement can run up against uncertainoutcomes, productive failures, and non-linear progress?

Great question. In some areas such as R&D, measurements and results are applied a bit differently. First, it’s important to determine how many resources will be devoted to these areas. This allows boundaries to be established and expectations to be set. Goals such as the number of patents received, papers written in top journals, and new products brought to market on time are potential areas to measure. Often, it’s best to measure these items over time to evaluate the trend. This allows for the inevitable swing in results inherent with innovation. Another way to evaluate performance is via reviews. This allows the company’s manufacturing and development groups the opportunity to evaluate if products were delivered as agreed. Customers can assess quality and usability and, senior management can see if the ROI is meeting expectations. Even thought it may be hard to apply traditional productivity measures, companies still need to hold the leaders ofinnovation accountable.

5. What’s the most important execution skill every MBA should graduate with?

As you know, I’m fortunate to teach the nation’s only EMBA business execution course at The University of Texas – Dallas which provides me a unique perspective on this question. My advice for MBA grads is to understand and maintain the proper balance between planning and doing. Leadership is the relentless pursuit of vision and results. Both are needed. Perhaps the best way to sum it up is “At the beginning of the day, it’s all about possibilities. At the end of the day, it’s all about results”. Finally, be hard on performance and easy on people. Done well, people will judge us as someone who is fair (Here are some comments from recent EMBA grads).