You’re the quarterback in the Superbowl game. You have exactly 2 minutes on the clock and you’re now down by 5 points. The other team just scored and kicked the ball back off to yours. Your team receives the ball and is stopped at your 5-yard line. This means you have 95 yards to go to score a touchdown and the world is on the edge of their seats. The coach yells to the sideline, “OFFENSE” but of course all the offensive players are already standing, anxious to take the field. The coach says to you and all the others, “you know what time it is, 2-Minute Drill!” Your adrenaline rushes. You know that winning this game means everything to the team. The whole season is on the line. It’s a golden opportunity to silence all the critics and bring victory to your city. You and the team have practiced the 2-minute drill a thousand times and have run it in games throughout the year. Now, more than ever, you need flawless execution.
The mechanism for Agile Strategy Execution is most analogous to the gameplay in the sport of American football. Both apply a cyclical, iterative, and progressive structure. There are 3 main components of Agile Strategy Execution, The Long-Term Goal (LTG), Short-Team Goal (STG), and the Next Action. These components are comparable to touchdowns, 1st Downs, and plays in football. Several methodologies, all based the Agile and scientific approach call these components by different names. In the Four Disciplines of Execution (4DX), they are called the Wildly Important Goal, the Lead Measures, and Commitments. In Toyota KATA, they are called the Challenge, Target Condition, and Experiments. In Growth Hacking, they are called the North Star, Growth Loops, and Tests. In traditional Agile terms, they are synonymous with the Project Vision, User Stories, and Implementation. For simplicity, we will use the generic terms of LTG, STG, and Next Action.
Defining the Long-Term Goal, LTG (or the Touchdown)
The LTG in Agile Strategy Execution is synonymous with the touchdown in football. It is what the team is working to achieve that will require sustained coordination. In football, the end zones are located at both ends of a long field separated by 100 yards. The offense must overcome the defense to score. Every young boy with an ounce of competitiveness dreams of being the one carrying the ball into the end zone one day. The thrill of scoring a touchdown is so intense that you often see players break out into elaborate dance moves or spike the football in excitement. It once got so bad that the National Football League started imposing penalties for excessive celebration. The players absolutely love it, but perhaps not quite as much as the fans, who frequently break out dance moves of their own.
Football encompasses a team of 11 offensive versus 11 defensive players. While offense is trying to gain yardage and score touchdowns, defense is trying to stop them. The offensive team runs a series of plays in hopes of progressing into the defense’s end zone. The touchdown is clearly defined for the team. There is only one end zone for a score to be achieved by the offense, however there are infinite ways to get there. The entire team works collectively to reach the end zone achieve the touchdown. Each of the 11 offensive players has a specific part to play in helping the team reach the end zone and must execute well; otherwise, they put the team at risk of failure.
Agile Strategy Execution requires leaders to set one LTG as well. The LTG defines the position the company should be in at a certain point in the future, usually more-or-less a year in scope. As with a football team’s offense working diligently to score a touchdown, leaders using Agile Strategy Execution are coaching their teams to achieve their LTG. The LTG provides the team with direction, distance, and a deadline for improvement. I call this 3D goalsetting. It should be sufficiently difficult to achieve. The capability to reach the LTG should lie beyond the team’s current capability. This stretch is what creates pull for Continuous Improvement. If the LTG is too easy, there is no need for improvement. There is also no thrill of achievement. No one is inspired to be mediocre. On the other hand, people will go through hell to reach heaven. Imagine the early American settlers racing west during the gold rush of the mid-1800’s. They left home excited about the prospects of striking it rich in what is now California. Many of them were accustomed to living in small towns and rural areas throughout the eastern US. They didn’t necessarily have the skills to survive on the unpaved trails through dense forest, open savannahs, harsh desert, wetlands, deep valleys, and frozen mountains for weeks or months on end. They had to learn to feed themselves, treat ailments, stay hydrated, and even raise children, all while living out of horse-drawn wagons. They did not know what life would be like on the west coast, but the believed it would be better. They had to become better in order to succeed in this great challenge, and they believed it would be worth the trouble. Perhaps they were not just motivated by the destination, but the incredible experience that comes with getting there. As author Latif Mercado put it, “the best part of success, is the journey.” I suppose all migrants accept similar terms. Leaders should set a LTG that requires all their facilities to achieve and moves them closer to the organization’s vision. The Vision is a choice, and to some extent, so is the LTG. The leader doesn’t need to know exactly how to get there; but feel fairly certain that it is directionally beneficial.
Defining the Short-Term Goal, STG (or the 1st Down)
The STG in Agile Strategy Execution is synonymous with the 1st Down in football, which is a more immanent goal that moves you toward the touchdown. While a touchdown could require any number of yards less than 100, the 1st Down is generally 10 yards, assuming no losses or penalties have been assigned. The team has 4 tries to achieve a 1st Down; aptly named 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Down. If the team fails to reach 10-yard marker and establish a new set of downs, the ball is turned over the other team. The 3D’s of goalsetting are clearly defined here as well; direction = towards the end zone, distance = 10 yards, and deadline = 4 attempts (each within the play clock time limit).
The 1st Down goal is within sight. A series of 1st Downs will ultimately lead to a touchdown. Because the defense is doing everything in their power to stop you from reaching the 1st Down, you must adapt your approach on the fly to be successful. That’s right, you must be agile. Although you may have a few go-to plays and even an entire sequence of plays in mind, you must read the situation and adjust your scheme given the best knowledge you have in the moment. After every down, the situation has changed. Fortunately, if you’re paying attention, you know a little bit more than you knew the down before. You realize that you can’t throw the ball over the middle because they’re playing zone coverage. You also realize you don’t have a lot of time to do long pass plays because the defense blitzes a lot. You must adapt and put together a string of plays that will get you the most yardage in a situation where conditions are constantly changing. The 1st Down marker doesn’t change between plays but you face several obstacles, including fatigue, defensive tactics, and weather just to name a few. If the defense changes their strategy after a 1st Down series, the offense can quickly adapt its strategy as well in between plays. This is like a business dealing with market disruption such as rapid inflation or recession happening a few months into the year. Each play is built on the progress and learnings from the last, but the goal is the same; get the 1st Down. After each play, the team assesses the results, calls a new play, and repeats until the goal is achieved, unless of course the defense stops them.
In Agile Strategy Execution, the STG is set as a near term goal. Like the 1st Down, it is within sight and should be achievable within a few weeks or months. For a CEO, a STG may be set for 30 or 60 days, and perhaps 2 to 4 weeks for a frontline worker. For people new to the process, its best to set up STGs that are fairly easy to achieve so people can experience some early success. This way, they don’t get discouraged too soon.
The STG is a condition(s) that can be repeated with a high degree of predictability. For example, a Production Manager might set a STG that a line can run 10,000 units per day. Notice the “per day” designation qualifies the STG as a condition. A STG should be measurable or binary so that progress or success is clearly distinguishable. When the STG is achieved, you should be able to deliver it under normal circumstances without needing to make further improvement. However, when setting the STG, it should be sufficiently challenging so that it requires improvement from the Current State in order to be successful. This stretch, as mentioned before, is what creates the need for Continuous Improvement. If the STG does not require people, processes, or technology to get better, there is no need or motivation for improvement.
Defining the Next Action (or the Next Play)
The Next Actions in Agile Strategy Execution are like a series of plays in football. The sequence of plays adds up to a series of 1st Downs, which add up to a string of touchdowns. Scoring touchdowns adds up to winning games, which adds up to winning championships. This ultimately adds up to the organization achieving its mission. The ball is moved down the field as measured by yards, or the leading indicator of success. There is a short break after each play where the team learns how well the last play worked and decides which play to run next. If a run play is disrupted by the defense, an agile tailback will switch directions to find an opening and gain yardage. If the quarterback steps up to the line of scrimmage and reads that the defense is well positioned to stop the play, he can change the play in real-time by calling an audible. An agile wide receiver will improvise on the planned route if the pass play gets broken up. The offense must be agile in order to avoid being stopped by the defense. The goal of achieving a 1st down doesn’t change, but the means of getting there remains flexible. Every individual player has a STG relative to their domain. Each player on the field is experimenting with each new play as well. For example, the offensive lineman quickly learns that if they charge right at the defender in front of them, he will be beaten to the quarterback because the defender is quicker. The offensive lineman then learns that he should wait and let the defender come to him, moving laterally to ward off the threat.
Agile Strategy Execution is structured to run a series of Next Actions in order to achieve the STG. The Next Actions are like plays in football. The Improver does not know for certain that the Next Action will result in improvement until after it is executed. However, for well executed Next Actions, learning is always achieved. The better the Improver becomes at execution, the faster and more cheaply she can execute Next Actions to validate assumptions and ultimately make improvements. Improvement leads to better results and achievement of goals. Examples of Next Actions might include placing tools on a shadow board near the point of use or changing the order of activities on a standard procedure. The effectiveness of each Next Action is measured by progress against the STG.
Agility is a capability that must be built over time. It’s important to “operationalize” Next Actions, meaning to conduct them on a set cadence. As humans are a creature of habit more than anything else, Next Actions must be made into a habit as well. Consistency is key. Although, it’s the kind of habit that can be difficult to get into and easy to fall out of, similar to diet and exercise. Therefore, coaches are important. In the late Anders Ericksen’s book titled “Peak – Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,” the author mentions that it takes a person anywhere between 20 and 250 repetitions of an action before it becomes a habit. I encourage people to set a weekly or perhaps daily cadence of Next Actions, executed by the Improver with the help of a coach.
Just like in football, teams in business need to remain agile in order to adapt to constantly changing realities. The best strategic plan is to have no strategic plan. Just be clear on the destination and systematically experiment your way there. Setting a LTG is an alternative to creating a strategic plan. Creating a cascading STGs is like deploying strategy. Executing consistent Next Actions to improve results is strategy execution. Everyone should always have a number and constantly running plays to improve performance of the business. This means not always working in the business but also on the business. After you’ve set your own LTG and STG, just cascade to your team by having them propose STGs in alignment with yours but relative to their domain; like Hoshin Kanri’s catchball process. This simple mechanism can be done from the C Suite all the way to the frontlines. Then get everybody running plays. Agile Strategy Execution enables the team to extract maximum learning from each play, each 1st Down, and each touchdown; or each Next Action, STG, and LTG, respectively. The coach is on the field with the team, engaged in the game. If the team loses, it ultimately reflects poorly on the coach.
Football is a game of iterative strategy, adaptation, and execution; so is Agile Strategy Execution. Running plays moves the ball, which moves the line of scrimmage progressively toward the touchdown. Continuous Improvement of business operations works in a similar way. Likewise, offensive teams can be pushed back if they fail to execute well. The team that wins is usually the team most Fit to win. Fit-ness is thereby achieved through practice, repetition, and consistent execution. Each team member owns the play, the quarterback owns the 1st Down, the offensive coach owns the touchdown, the head Coach owns the game, the team’s General Manager owns the season, and the team’s owners owns the dynasty. No one can step down in ownership, but anyone can step up.
Legends are created on the grid iron, and so are dynasties. We should be having just as much fun in business. Due to a lack of agility, many companies are failing to reach the end zone and quickly punting the ball in the face of market disruption. They are hoping they can just avoid getting scored on, betting that competitors in their respective industries will also just roll over and accept defeat. However, teams that are agile and find a way to win against all odds become champions. In football, as in business, the rule of survival is to adapt or die. Agile Strategy Execution is the simplest and most powerful mechanism to maximize adaptability, enabling teams of all sizes to thrive. When it’s your turn to execute the 2-minute drill in the Superbowl game, will you shrink from the moment and be defeated; or will you take the field with the confidence of flawless, agile execution?
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