The Art of Getting Things Done

For more than 30 years, whether coaching executives or advising cabinet secretaries, Larry Smith has practiced the art of getting things done. Here is his action plan.

For more than 30 years, Indiana native Larry Smith, 64, has practiced the art of getting things done. Whether teaching public management at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government (where he begins class by writing on the board, "Knowing it ain't the same as doing it — old Hoosier saying"); acting as counselor to Secretaries of Defense Les Aspin and William J. Perry (who presented him with the Distinguished Public Service Medal, the Department of Defense's highest civilian honor); advising nonprofit organizations on moving their ideas into the public light; or working as a coach to high-tech senior managers, Smith has mastered the difficult art of translating ideas into action. A case in point: In the early 1980s, Smith's skills in thinking and doing triggered military reform in Congress, a movement that examined many of the fundamentals of national defense and, in doing so, reshaped the way in which U.S. defense capabilities were delivered.

We asked Smith what it takes to move from idea to action. Here, he discusses six reasons why organizations often fail to execute their ideas — and six solutions to change that.

The problem: No actionable proposition. Time and again, says Smith, companies fail to think of great ideas as "actionable propositions" — that is, as things that can actually be done. "Often, managers don't stop to ask what result they're trying to produce," Smith says. "It's not clear, for example, what market segment they're going after or what product they're really offering. I once heard a quote that speaks to this point: 'The first thing we forget is what we're really trying to do.' " Often, says Smith, the problem goes beyond forgetting what you want or how to get it. "Typically," he says, "we don't know what result we want in the first place — let alone how we are going to achieve it." The solution: Start by defining a concrete desired result, and then work backward. Map out the entire execution process, from conception to delivery, and then put an experienced operator in charge of each step. Be especially clear in defining the relationships between operators.

The problem: No alignment. Even actionable ideas will fail if they don't match up with your company's other goals, says Smith. Today, many companies find themselves facing conflicting interests: dominating a fast-growing e-market versus hitting Wall Street-influenced profit targets. To have a chance of achieving both of those goals, every idea must fit within a company's already-expressed intentions. "It's a variation on an old Henny Youngman joke," says Smith. " 'How do you like your new idea?' 'Well, compared with what?' " The solution: "You have to stress-test your idea," Smith counsels. "Your map of how to execute a new idea should expose any problems that the idea might cause for other business goals or practices." You can then adjust your goals to support the new idea, time the idea differently — or drop the idea altogether.

The problem: Missing pieces. Even well-thought-out, actionable ideas will be stalled if your organization lacks critical elements, such as the domain knowledge necessary to apply a new technology. Companies routinely underestimate what it takes to execute a new idea. "With a truly new offering to an unfamiliar market segment, everything from engineering to the way that you make deals can be different," Smith says. The solution: Inventory all "dependencies," or pieces necessary to execute your idea. Then determine what you lack and — if the idea is still feasible — build it, buy it, or hire it. The key is to have not just available resources but also "disciplined self-analysis." Says Smith: "You need to be able to step back, see what you need, and then admit it if you don't have something."

The problem: No integration. Even with a great idea and the right organizational pieces, you still won't be able to execute your idea unless those pieces collaborate effectively — unless you have "operational integration." Often, says Smith, execution fails because it "depends on a group of people working together who are not used to working together, and who have completely different incentives." Sales teams, for example, are often at odds with research or engineering employees. The solution: Recognize that an organization's structure can impede teamwork. Power often resides in business leaders who are not always committed to the execution of a new idea. To change the game, says Smith, create a "virtual swat team of trusted agents who have proxy, who know their part, and who will commit to executing the idea."

The problem: No battle captain. Since new ideas often come without an organizational home, says Smith, they usually lack a champion. And yet, moving an idea through the organizational gauntlet to reality requires entrepreneurial leadership. The landscape of companies is littered with good ideas that died because they were orphans. The solution: If you genuinely want to carry an idea forward, designate a battle captain who is clearly responsible for that idea and who is authorized to make it happen.

The problem: No moral courage. Smith cites a lesson of Ulysses S. Grant: "Grant used to say that he knew officers who would risk their lives in battle, but who lacked 'the moral courage' to make decisions for which they would be held accountable." In today's corporate environment, new ideas are inherently risky — so much so that even corporate mavericks fear taking on something that might flop. "People want someone else to make the decision," Smith says. "And absent that, they will just sit on an idea." The solution: Make it clear that your organization values risk taking. Align incentives so that those who make big things happen get big rewards, while those who try to make things happen but fail aren't flogged. And when someone does fail, says Smith, "hold that person up as a model — as someone who had the courage to try."

Contact Larry Smith by email (lksmith@fastcompany.com).

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