Sticking to It: The Art of Adherence

    How many times have we been told the formula for maintaining a healthy weight is to eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly? Everybody knows the formula, although sophisticated marketers package it in many creative ways. So if we all know what the formula is, why is it so difficult to apply it to our lives? The secret to losing weight is not in knowing the formula -“ it’s in applying what we already know.

    Most organizations understand how to develop a strategy, but many fail to successfully execute it. To illustrate this, consider that in a typical year, 40 CEOs from the Fortune 200 are removed from their posts. Why? Of course, some had poor strategies. However, the most common reason CEOs lost their leadership position was because they didn’t execute their strategies.

    Lack of strategy execution is not isolated to CEOs. Leaders at all organizational levels experience challenges executing their strategies. In fact, the greatest challenge for today’s leaders is not the lack of well thought-out strategies, but the lack of disciplined execution of those strategies. There is a knowing-doing gap. The game is won not by creating new strategies, but by sticking to your current strategy -“ it’s called Adherence.

    So, how do you achieve Adherence? Based on the experiences of high-achieving individuals and teams, there are three key components of Adherence: Focus, Competence and Passion. The relationship between these three components is best illustrated by a multiplication equation: There is also an exponential relationship between the three components. In other words, a higher level of Focus, Competence or Passion will result in an exponential increase in Adherence. As you increase each component, you build momentum toward executing your strategy.

    The results of building Adherence can be compared to the results of planting a bamboo seed. When the seed is planted and nurtured, it can take up to two years for a sprout to break through the earth. But once it does, it can grow over 100 feet in two weeks! This accurately describes the journey and benefits of building Adherence.

    The ultimate competitive advantage, organizationally or personally, is being the very best at implementing a plan. Your greatest challenge is not creating a new plan. Your greatest challenge is adhering to your current plan. Spend more time on Adherence and less time creating a new strategy.

    Let’s take a closer look at Adherence. The following sections describe the success factors for each component of Adherence: Focus, Competence and Passion.

    1. Find that “One Thing.”

    The One Thing should answer the question, “Why are we here?” It may appear that finding your focus is not such a big deal; but in fact, it is the biggest deal. The most important thing in business (and life) is to decide what is most important.

    Sticking to the One Thing can be a challenge while you put out fires, change priorities and explore new opportunities. To maintain your focus, consider automating, streamlining or outsourcing areas that are not core to your team’s operation.

    A laser-sharp focus does not happen overnight. It takes time and effort to reinforce and refine it, but it needs to start now. Your team’s One Thing might be: building leading edge products; creating relationships that customers just can’t walk away from; making the world a cleaner, more efficient or friendlier place; creating defect-free products or providing the fastest service available. These are just examples -“ your One Thing has to be your One Thing. It should guide all your decisions and actions.

    2. Know when to say “No.”
    High-achieving teams are clear about their One Thing and are passionate about it. This powerful combination creates leadership courage and enables you to make tough decisions for your team. Leadership courage helps you more swiftly decide to channel resources away from non-critical areas or replace a team player. The conviction to make tough decisions is a key differentiator of teams who adhere to their plans. These decisions are not perceived as sacrifices or compromises for those who are focused and passionate.

    For example, as a leader, you may use meetings as one way to conduct business. When you do call a meeting, think about the salaries of each attendee and the potential time they could be working on your One Thing instead of being in a meeting. You decide how to use your team members’ time by calling meetings, so ensure that you are getting the best return for their time investment. Of course meetings can be useful, but they can also diffuse your focus if you do know when to say “No.”

    Your time, energy and money are precious resources -“ if you spend them in one area, they are not available to be spent in another area. Communicating this message deep into your team enables employees to say “No” to non-value-added tasks and to stay focused on executing your strategy. Saying “Yes” to one thing always means saying “No” to something else.

    1. Get systematic.

    Effective systems are the key to elevating the average performance of your team. Systems also help ensure consistent and predictable execution and of your team’s plan. Systems go way beyond your technical computer systems and include any defined, methodical, predictable way of doing work and making decisions. Systems should create positive habits for your team.

    Effective systems elevate the performance of your average employees, resulting in better Adherence and higher team performance levels. Your team’s systems should help you efficiently and effectively: make important decisions; prioritize work; develop new products/services; plan new projects; select and develop employees; measure performance; communicate with each other; and resolve conflict.

    Good systems do not appear by osmosis. Ask yourself, “What have I implemented that helps my team consistently execute their tasks.

    2. Balance your view.
    High achieving leaders are always scanning their environment. They step back to look at the big picture and they dive into the details. They also look at the past to learn from their experiences while planning for the future. Let’s take a peek at how these leaders build adherence by balancing their views.

    First, leaders should balance their view of the big picture and the details. Before you can effectively adhere to your plans, you must understand the details and needs of your team’s operations -“ your cost, profit and customer satisfaction drivers. Too many leaders work from a 10,000-foot perspective without having a detailed knowledge of their people or business. Although a high-level perspective is necessary for leadership success, it should be accompanied by an in-depth understanding of your team.

    Another way to balance your view is to look at the past and the future.

    Every team has a variety of performance indicators. Teams that adhere to their plans understand the different types of indicators, what they mean and, most importantly, how to balance them. Consider a measurement continuum. At each end of the continuum are two types of performance indicators. Leading indicators are the drivers of your team’s future performance. These are the areas that give you early warning signs of problems. Lagging indicators are the results of your team’s past performance. These are the areas that you look at to see if your plans worked as well as expected.

    1. Paint the picture.
    We have discussed creating focus and developing competence. These are the things that capture the minds of your employees. To capture their hearts, we must meet their need to contribute to something bigger than them. This addresses people’s most basic psychological need -“ the need to find meaning in life. Creating a sense of meaning for employees elicits discretionary effort and personal sacrifice for the greater cause.

    When people work hard for something they believe in (as if they were owners of your business), a special bond inevitably develops between them. A high degree of passion helps create a mental toughness that enables employees to see opportunities in things that might be seen as obstacles by others.

    The foundation for creating a meaningful work environment is to help employees see how they fit into the big picture. People will naturally become more passionate about their work when they clearly understand they are a part of something bigger than themselves. As a leader, you must be able to answer the four questions employees commonly ask (and they are asking these questions -“ whether you hear them or not):

    1. Where are we going? (Strategy)
    2. What are we doing to get there? (Plans)
    3. How can I contribute? (Roles)
    4. What is in it for me? (Rewards)

    Creating meaningful work for your team might seem like a soft, intangible process, but high achieving leaders know that it yields hard, tangible results.

    2. Value your values.
    Even more important than what your team does is how your team does it -“ in other words, your team’s values. Values help build a common focus and set of norms. Team values might include collaboration, innovation, zero defects or a customer-first commitment.

    The word “communication” comes from the Latin root meaning “community.” Your efforts to communicate team values play a key role in creating a community of employees who share a common focus and passion.

    Depending on how you communicate your values, you can build cynicism or passion with your team. Some leaders “sell” their values to team members by turning communication efforts into an internal PR campaign. Other leaders have certain negative assumptions about their teams and are uncomfortable letting go of their own interpretation of the values. They want to dictate the meaning of each value to every employee because, as the leader, they feel they know best. Be cautious if this is your tendency because those who underestimate the intelligence of others tend to overestimate their own. Think about it.

    Commit to one action you can take in the next 24 hours to start improving your team’s Adherence. High-achieving leaders start with themselves. They build personal Adherence before they try to build their team’s Adherence. If your team’s focus is low, look at your personal focus. If your team’s competence is sub-par, look at your own competence. If your team’s passion is faltering, look at your personal passion.

    That’s it. You are on your way to building Adherence for your team.
    Now, continue your journey by STICKING TO IT!

    Lee J. Colan, Ph.D. is a leadership advisor and author of 10 rapid-read books including the bestseller “Sticking to It.” Contact him at