It’s Implementation Stupid- the power to follow through

I have always wondered what makes individuals and institutions successful- not once off but consistently. So like any other good student of success I have read a number of books. Others have claimed the need for a certain kind leadership styles/skills/levels, others have raised the need for emotional intelligence, others the importance of setting good goals and targets. The list goes on. I have also faithfully followed up on the suggestions with regards to having a successful marriage, a balanced life, being a success at what you do etc. Others would suggest 7 Principles of this…others will talk about the character ethic etc- well and good and I think it’s necessary. But I have always felt inadequate had to read another book immediately afterwards- because I thought maybe foolishly that the answer is based on knowing and then developing the right formula. I was so wrong.

But last week something week- and my life and way of doing things has probably changed forever. It was during our board meeting- for those who work with non-profit boards will know how challenging boards made up of mostly volunteers can be. I was challenged at many levels, the frustrations (especially mine) were at times very audible, it was also adrenalin pumped, but there were moments when I had to dig deep into reservoirs of stamina dependent. A realization suddenly occurred to me that what matters at the end of the day after all the lofty discussions is following through the every decisions and idea and in the process making sure they are not abandoned –this is what I have decided to call ‘the power to follow through’. If I were Bill Clinton maybe I would say ‘it’s implementation-stupid’. A Christian friend of mine always says it’s about what you do on Monday- I suppose this refers to after hearing all the good preaching on Sunday.

Before I lose some of you- let me use examples from everyday life. Today is the 2nd of March- how many still remember their resolutions. I have noticed that most of the times we are not short of good ideas or goals but our struggle is in following through. Sadly this is where most of us fail.

The power to follow to through on ideas or decisions made is what separates those who end up successful and those who despite good intentions end up not succeeding in their different ventures. In the game of tennis one of the fundamentals of a good backhand is the ability to literally follow through. One does not just hit the ball but instead the motion of the hand should be one of guiding the ball even after hitting it- sort of directing its path. In football (a favorite for many) the most successful striker is the one who is always looking for loose balls- to follow-through. In innovation the most successful inventor- Thomas Edison made more than 1000 attempts at developing the light bulb literally learning from the previous mistake. Not giving up but learning and improvising-that is follow-through.

One the best books I have read is Slight Edge: Turning Simple Decisions into Massive Success’ by Jeff Olson. The author suggests very simple and easy to reach steps of achieving goals-for instance if one wants to improve their literary skills- all they need to read is 10 pages of a good book each day- at the end of the year one would have read 3 650 pages which could be more than 10 books. If one wants to lose weight- don’t go for the punishing schedule- you will give up too soon instead- but focus on starting by running just one kilometer each day- until you are comfortable with day. I could go on- but I am supposing you are getting the picture it’s about disciplined consistency.

Maybe to build another layer of thinking to this- let me make some suggestions on building great institutions.  I have come to believe that institutions are not built and sustained just on good decisions or big visions alone but through the development of disciplined capacity to follow through on ideas/suggestions in a back-hand like manner in almost all facets of the institutions. Instructions, suggestions and orders can be made and at times even written down but adequate attention to follow-through carries the day and learning from mistakes. Ideas are delicate they need to be nurtured, recorded and also follow-through. In my short stint in leadership I have come to the realization that we are not short of a vision but the ability to follow-through even on those seemingly mundane discussions we would have held over lunch, at coffee break or even in a shared ride. The slight edge idea here would be to develop a habit of recording, develop action plans, deadlines and accountability structures- sounds mundane right but just check if you doing it. It’s not rocket science that will turn around an organisation but consistency of action and unity of purpose.

Great ideas that are not nurtured/incubated remain essentially prisoners without hope if we fail to create a vehicle to carry them forward. One of the biggest obstacles to follow through is the lack of appropriate record keeping processes or just the absence of the habit to write down things or also not caring enough about decisions. Some of us just make the mistake of assuming that they can remember everything in meetings and even in their quiet moments and never invest in jotting down. Ideas will come to those people and fly away without ever being implemented.

Since I assumed leadership at TrustAfrica I have been insisting that every member of the team send me a  ‘3 things accomplished last week and 3 things you are doing this week’ list and this was partially based on this kind of thinking but today I realized that the 3 things is only a part of the arsenal. Our most brilliant moments tend to happen when we are so far away from the desks or even a pen and we just do not have the discipline to journal ideas, thoughts and suggestions. Somebody recently said that ‘the only thing that will carry forward TrustAfrica is the power of the idea’- I slightly disagree and instead put it this way ‘…the only thing that will take an organisation is the power of a well-executed idea’.  I honestly do not think it’s the lack of good ideas currently crippling our continent but weak execution- ‘the power of follow through’

Many organisations including ours face two challenges; one of consistently archiving brilliant ideas and the second one on following through those good ideas. I will dwell on the latter a bit more. Organizations rise and fall based on their capacity to judiciously follow-through on the claims they make either in proposals, the values statement or broadly their strategies.  These important documents are mostly used for fundraising documents and rarely internalized to be the guiding soul of the organisation and also to establish benchmarks of accountability. The crafting of any strategy presents an opportunity of developing consensus over an idea of what is special/unique about that organisation and also what is will do. Rarely do organizations feel challenged at the stage of writing these documents- the well-resourced one bring in consultants to help going them. The real test is always about follow-through on the idea contained within the strategy. The test is not about how good an idea it is but essentially about whether we can follow-through on the commitment we have made within the strategy through our daily small steps.

Our everyday work seemingly made up of mundane activities such as never ending meetings, reports here, and teleconference with so and so, lunch meeting etc lead to the big results. The challenge is in how we follow-through from these meetings to implement suggestions. On most occasions we tend to endure meetings and glad once its over- then we go to the ‘real work’-so sad!

I have come to the realization that the real answer to success in anything do is in implementing the few ideas that come my way and at times I will fail but that is also a fundamental part of success. My question to everyone is how can we make follow-through a part of our everyday work? Below I have made some suggestions;

  • Keep a journal and a diary- record your own thoughts and interesting ideas from others
  • Value time- start off the week/day with a modest list of things to do and people to talk
  • Allow for disruptions but ensure you derive value from every interruption
  • Work according to your own pace- do not be overwhelmed
  • Create a follow-through chart- discussions held, decisions made and record outcomes after implementation
  • Help others and share their success
  • Keep tabs on decisions/ideas implemented
  • Celebrate successful implementation
  • In case of failure- evaluate why it failed- remember…at first you may not succeed but dust yourself and try again.