Disruptive innovation, superior organization and flexibility are the most important front runners of any success. Creativity, exceptional execution and regular adjustments are the three building blocks that lead straight to the top. You have to work smart, you have to work hard and you have to stay agile in the process.
By being creative you find new, better ways to do things; you find a new pattern, something original or unusual that leads to higher productivity. This “something new” is implemented in practice through innovation by building a unique product, solution, system or process. The output of innovation is invention. With creativity, you invent something better, superior.
Adjustments, on the other hand, are important because no success is a straight line. There are always roadblocks on the way to a goal. With regular adjustments, you find a way to overcome obstacles or you find a way to achieve something with less outer resistance. You adapt to the environment. You stay flexible. Adjustments are innovations and positive changes in your strategy.
In the middle, there is the execution. You outline a superior and creative strategy for achieving goals. You know that you’ll have to regularly adjust your course to reach the finish line in the process. But at some point, you have to start running. You have to start performing and completing assigned tasks one after another. That’s execution.
You follow the PDCA cycle – Plan, do (execute), check, adjust.
The execution is your capacity to complete assigned tasks within specified high standards and in a determined timeframe. The execution is all the hard work, sweat and tears, combined with self‑discipline, resilience and persistence to get things done. The execution is the stamina and stubbornness to complete a task when there is no need to adjust.
Without execution skills you will get nowhere in life
From the trio – innovation, execution and flexibility – execution is the most important. Here’s why. If you lack creativity, but you are a good executive, you still get somewhere in life. You can outwork and outperform others to a certain level. You have to work much harder and life might not seem fair to you compared to people who work much smarter, but hard work still gets you somewhere.
It’s pretty much the same if you lack flexibility and you are a good executive. Usually inflexible executives hit the wall with their heads until the wall breaks. Their heads may hurt a lot, but at the end they break that wall. In the process, they often also hurt many other people and make enemies, which is not very positive, but they don't stagnate.
Inflexible executives often see that the end justifies the means, which is not the smartest strategy (trust me, I know). More flexible people prefer to find a way to go around the wall to somehow engage other people or turn them from blockers into neutrals or even allies. Still, if you’re only a good executive, you get at least something done (assuming that the damage isn’t too big).
A strategy, even a great one, doesn’t implement itself” —Jeroen De Flander
But if you don’t have any execution skills, you won’t get far in life. You can be extraordinarily creative, but without any execution skills you’ll be seen as a crazy innovator who never realizes any ideas. People will probably love to spend time with you, but they won’t want to work with you.
On the other hand, you can be extremely flexible, but without execution skills, you will be seen more as a person who can’t stick to a single thing for more than a day and always wants something new. Again, not a person to whom you would entrust execution or would love to work with.
That’s why execution skills are so important. It’s best to have the whole trio, but execution benefits you the most. With good execution skills, you always move forward. Without execution skills, you’re staying in the same place.
You are like a puzzled self-castrated indecisive loose cannon. Only hard work is never enough for becoming massively successful. But without hard work, you won’t get anywhere in life. Having the execution skill is thus extremely important.
By nature, I’m an extremely inflexible person. That’s why I have to invest a lot of effort into becoming and staying more flexible. I can be pretty creative when I have to, although there is still a lot of room for improvement. But I’ve always been a really good executive. I always knew how to get things done and that has led me far in life.
The only problem is that execution demands a lot of resources. Consequently, executing the wrong task or committing to superficial goals is equal to throwing away your precious energy and seconds that you’ll never get back (It's called waste). That’s why in the last few years, I learned to search before performing any execution.
You have to search before you do any execution
The biggest waste in life is fighting and working hard for something you don’t really want. You think you want it, you think you like it, but when you get it, it doesn’t bring you the satisfaction you imagined. The human psyche works in mysterious ways, and the gap between what you think you will enjoy and what you really enjoy is one of them. That’s why you have to really know yourself well.
Before you start climbing any ladder, you have to make sure you’re climbing the right one. You do that by using the search mode. You search for things that fit perfectly in your life. In the search mode, you are always wrong before you are right; and you are okay with it.
You consciously prepare yourself for a series of small failures. You have to try many different things and learn about yourself and the world. You strive for validated learning by performing controlled experiments. Even if you are always wrong before you are right, there’s good news in the story. You only have to be right once.
Your goal in the search mode is to find one job or business that you really enjoy and are talented for. You have to find one exercise you dislike the least and you can do regularly. You have to find one diet that enables you to manage your weight and have high levels of energy. You have to find one spouse you can build your dream life with.
It’s not hard to know when you find your fit. When you find the right fit, passion awakens in you. You find yourself in something. You know that you can be successful in this. You see potential. You know this is it, you don’t even have to ask yourself this question. It’s meant to be.
Here are examples for what you usually hear about people who found their fit. They were in the right place at the right time. They were born to be a salesman. They’re so good at math. They hold the crowd’s attention with their sexuality and voice. They’re an excellent politician. They wield the racket extremely well. If only I knew how to do that …
When you find your fit, the search mode is more or less over. You can use search mode principles for adjustments or if you feel that it’s time for a pivot at certain stage of your life, but in general when you find your fit, you move from the search mode into the execution mode. So let’s start exploring what good execution really means.
Entering the execution mode
With the search mode you nail it, in the execution mode you have to scale it. The first important question that always arises is when to move from the search mode to the execution mode. It’s not hard to know when to do the transition.
- Did I find something that I’m respectfully good at / works for me?
- Did I find something that I really enjoy? Am I genuinely looking forward to doing it?
- Do I get out as much as I invest or even more? Does it hold a small risk and great potential?
- Do I have a clear set of metrics and defined process (in my Goal Journey Map) to measure execution and progress?
- Did I build myself a motivational environment to help me with execution?
- Can I build my long term success with it in a specific life area?
- Does it go together with my overall life design and works perfectly with other life areas?
- Does it enable me to grow and personally improve?
- Would I lose anything important if I stopped doing it?
- Will I leave a positive legacy behind, am I being a good role model to other people?
If you answered all the questions with yes, then it’s time to leave the search mode and start with the execution. It’s time to stop trying new things, it’s time to stop with divergent thinking, brainstorming and experimenting, and it’s time to stop validating things. At this point, when you answer yes to those questions listed above, convergent thinking, focus, persistence and self-discipline come into play.
In the execution mode is time for full engagement. When you find your fit, you have to make more than a hundred percent commitment. You have to move quickly, be focused and progress fast. The more energy you put into a single goal, the faster your progress will be. In the execution mode, it’s all about the speed of finishing task after task (and in the search mode, it’s all about the learning speed).
The key point in the execution phase is to work on your goals on a daily basis, and measure progress at regular intervals, the so-called sprints. You have to get yourself from the search mindset to the execution mindset. A perfect example of the right execution mindset would be: if my goal is to live a healthier life, there is nothing that can get in the way of me doing my daily exercise and eating healthy.
In the execution mode you brutally focus and fully commit
The core element of execution is focus. That’s because the power of focus is enormous. If you focus on the right thing, of course. The reasons why are simple. You have a limited amount of energy. Let’s say you have 100 units of energy.
If you focus your attention on one thing, you can put 100 units into it. If you are doing two things at once, it’s not 50/50, because you use let’s say 20 units for mental shifting, switching tasks, educating yourself, updating the context, managing connections with people etc. and consequently you become less productive.
You invest only 40 units into one thing. If you are doing three things at a time, you invest maybe 20 units into one thing. Compare 100 units to 20 units; the latter is nothing.
That’s why I use monk mode to focus brutally for months when I want to achieve bigger goals.
The second important thing, besides not spreading yourself too thin, is that when you focus, the spiral effect happens. Your focus gets you to the first small successes as soon as possible. Then it motivates you more. You go after the low-hanging fruit first and then you climb the tree higher and higher. Consequently, you want to focus even more. That leads to even more success. You get caught in a positive spiral effect. You become the lucky one.
The core rules of focusing yourself
To focus more, you need to rearrange your priorities. Thus the first thing you have to do when switching from the search mode to the execution mode is to “make more time” in your life.
You want to let go of other things that aren’t your fits, that are only compromises and time wasters, and invest more time into executing the thing that fits you. If you want to do that, you have to let go of some other things you’re currently spending your energy on – people, activities and tasks.
You have to stop doing some things and activities that don’t bring desired results, and start doing new things. That requires saying no to people, saying no to things you’re only interested in, maybe throwing away some stuff that consumes too much of your time, and ignoring all distractions.
In the AgileLeanLife methodology, the following things are strictly forbidden in the execution phase in order to be as focused as possible:
- Multitasking and other bad time management practices (read The best time management guide)
- Doing too many things and having too many goals at once
- Not having a place where you can work without any distractions and be in the flow at least once a day for a few hours (you can help yourself achieve that with a no-interruptions day, a place to escape and monk mode)
- Losing focus because you’re dealing with distractions and urgent tasks instead of working on the important ones
- Not working on your goals on a daily basis. In the execution mode, you have to work on your goals every day; every single day. Period.
- Not regularly measuring your progress in the intervals you’ve set with visual elements – the so-called sprints visualized on a Kanban board as we will see later.
Working in the flow, the divine execution experience
In the execution mode, most of the work should be achieved in the flow. What is a flow? Well, you simply know when you’re in the flow. Times just passes by. You enjoy working, creating and executing. There are no distractions, no misleading thoughts or temptations. You are absolutely focused and dedicated to completing a task.
If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about and I have to describe it somehow, I would say that the flow is kind of a superior creative and execution act. It’s a divine experience that enables you to create, deliver and capture real value added quickly and efficiently. It’s your pure inner energy being transmitted into remarkable work done. Now, don’t get confused at this point.
It’s not like the search mode is for creative tasks and the execution mode is for non-creative tasks. You can do creative and executive tasks in both modes. You can do creative and executive tasks in the flow. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you want to do art as a hobby.
- Creative work in the search mode would be brainstorming which arts to try
- Execution work in the search mode would be trying 10 different arts until you find your fit
- Creative work in the execution mode would be outlining your next piece of art
- Execution work in the execution mode would be creating the masterpiece based on the outline
I hope that makes sense to you. Anyway, you have to be very careful, it’s not easy to enter and stay in the flow. The biggest killers of the workflow, the most productive state for a human being, are distractions. Therefore, you need a place for yourself where you can get real work done.
Laser focus by eliminating all distractions and being in the flow as much as possible is the formula for good execution results. Use it.
One more thing. Working in the flow without distractions doesn’t mean you can’t work in the flow with a team of people. I’ve seen it numerous times, when a team of people locked themselves in a meeting room and completely focused on completing a demanding task that required collective brainpower.
But if you have one grumbler or time waster in a team, it’s hard to work in the team flow, because they always kill the spirit. One bozo and the flow is gone. That’s why A people only like to work with A people.
You can timebox flows in your calendar. Ideally you should timebox two or three two-hour flows in your calendar, put a no-distractions sign on your doors when the time for a flow comes and just work, just execute.
If you add one more no-interruptions day per week to your calendar, that would be even more perfect. Many successful people have their own “place to escape” to peacefully create in the flow. As I mentioned, I even use the monk mode concept to work in the flow for months.
Self-discipline to follow the process
“Interested” and “interesting” are the two main enemies of real progress in the execution mode. Interested does not equal committed. Try not. Do or do not. There is no try. After the search mode. That requires character and in the center of the character stands severe self-discipline. Self-discipline means that you are prepared to do a task, whether you feel like doing it or not.
Even if you are working on the most exciting project ever, there comes a time when you don’t feel like working and executing. Sometimes it may be just one day, sometimes a week and sometimes these kinds of blocks last for months.
There are many reasons why this can happen, from being exhausted to acute or chronical procrastination, self-sabotage, and so on. It’s definitely important to listen to yourself and manage your energy, not only your time, but it’s also important to be disciplined. That means knowing and managing yourself to the point where you can return to executing as soon as possible after encountering behavioral stagnation.
You must know how to set limits to your hard work, but you also have to make sure that you are progressing towards your goals daily, that you do something every single day to come closer to what you want to achieve and that nobody is stopping you on the path.
Basically, nothing must come between you and executing the task that will get you to the finish line.
Traditional set of metrics
In the execution mode, more standard goal setting comes into play compared to the search mode. You know exactly what to do, approximately how fast you’ll get there, you just have to keep the discipline, do the daily hard work, and follow the process. Goal setting comes closer to the traditional S.M.A.R.T. methodology.
The purpose of the search mode is to get educated firsthand, to get to know the terrain, to understand how you as an individual relate to your goals and the environment, and so on. You build yourself a map that enables you to execute properly.
With all that, your plan is not only wishful thinking or wild imagination when you get to the execution mode, but a superior plan based on validated assumptions.
Here are a few practical examples:
- When you find the perfect diet, you just have to stick to it daily. Every single day, you make sure you are following your eating pattern, fit your macros and don’t do any cheat meals.
- When you find a sport you dislike the least, you just have to do it 3 – 5 times per week. Every time there is a training afternoon in your schedule, you just do it.
- When you find the best way to save money, you just have to do it each time you receive a paycheck. You save that money and never spend it, until retirement.
- When you find a way to earn additional income based on your talents, you just have to do it over and over again and invoice your clients.
- When you find a topic you are really passionate about, you just have to read a book per week, constantly talk to new people in the industry, and get involved in a project to gain practical experience. Pure execution.
- When you find art you like and have a bit of talent for, all you have to do is take time and create. You just do it.
- When you find your perfect spouse, you have to make sure you do small daily investments into the relationship and never settle. By executing daily small investments you show that it matters to you and that you don’t take your spouse for granted.
- When you find a business idea customers are willing to pay for immediately, you just have to build a company around it with traditional entrepreneurial and managerial knowledge.
That’s execution. For all the mentioned examples you know the process of getting to the finish line, you can set very straight and strict metrics to follow, and you have a general idea of how fast you’ll get to the desired output.
It still usually takes three times longer than expected and it costs three times more (the PI rule), but at least you know you are climbing the right ladder. You aren’t deceiving yourself or doing something that makes you completely unhappy.
Moving fast with bi-weekly sprints
In the search mode, you have no idea how quickly you’re going to find your fit. The only thing you can do is to accelerate validated learning as much as possible. The execution mode is different. To achieve the highest speed possible in the execution mode, you have to sprint; and you have to sprint fast. In the search mode you are an explorer and in the execution mode you are a sprinter.
Usain Bolt sprinting must look as slow as a turtle compared to you working hard.
So what is a sprint? A sprint is a 14-day period in the execution mode, where you work hard as hell to complete all selected items from your backlog. Your backlog is your prioritized vision list broken down into the 100-days strategy and further into small tasks achievable in a flow or two.
I encourage you to read these articles to understand the whole concept:
All the selected items from your backlog for the next 14 days have to be written down as tasks on post-it notes and visualized on your Kanban board. Throughout the two weeks, you move your tasks from “to‑do” to “in progress” and “done” status. At the end of the sprint, all tasks should be done. You sprint, you move post-it notes, and you execute like crazy.
- Plan your sprint on a Sunday evening or Monday morning every 14 days.
- Put sprint planning in your calendar in advance and never miss it.
- Carefully look at your prioritized vision list and your 100-Days Backlogand be clear about what the priorities are. You want to go after the tasks with the highest possible impact.
- Limit Work in Progress (WIP):With the right amount of work in progress, you can be in the flow instead of facing anxiety or boredom. Keep enough margin.
- Select the items you’ll do in the next 14 days.You should select between 4 – 6 items that you break down into 20 – 30 tasks (you should have up to 30 post-it notes on your Kanban board).
- The biggest amount of time spent on a task is something that can be achieved in a day, but the optimal size of a task is for it to be achieved in one flow.
- Prepare your Kanban board for the next sprint.
- Move post-it notes from “To-Do” to “In progress” and “Done”
Sprint, sprint, sprint! Execute, execute, execute!
Regular small adjustments
In the search mode, you seek your perfect fit, in the execution mode you do regular adjustments. Whether you’re in the search mode or in the execution mode, whether you’re doing a creative or a routine task, never just do things, constantly ask yourself why and how. That’s why you need to do regular introspections and consequently regularly update your goal journey map.
Introspections are reflections you do after different periods of execution. They’re an integral part of bi-weekly sprints and quarterly planning sessions, and their main purpose is to improve your strategy, tactics and actions. The best time to do retrospection is when you are planning a new sprint. You analyze what you did and learned in the previous sprint, and then you plan a new one.
With retrospections, you want to make sure you’re progressing towards your goal in the best possible way. With regular retrospections, you want to have the smartest strategy and be one step ahead of your instincts, life itself and other people.
The bottom lines of introspection are the most important part of the process. If you don’t have the bottom lines, you have a very poorly performed introspection. The mandatory thing is that after every introspection, you have answers to a few very basic, but extremely hard questions:
- What went well during the last sprint that I/we will continue doing?
- What could I/we do differently?
- How can I/we implement the change?
Based on that, you should make three decisions and stick to them:
- What should I start doing?
- What should I stop doing?
- What should I continue doing?
After every introspection, you have to change your behavior and your actions. You change your strategy, tactics and operational plan. The fact that you learned something new from the previous sprint has to be reflected in the tasks on your Kanban board for the next sprint.
Introspections are one of the most important parts of execution. A successfully conducted search mode or execution mode is never a straight line. You always have to adapt; you always have to change your course a little bit. With regular reflections, you make sure that you always stay flexible. Retrospections also help you become the best version of yourself and constantly improve.
Enjoy the path, smile while you’re executing
You are here on this planet to (1) enjoy life, (2) learn and grow, (3) create and (4) connect. In the search mode, you have to make sure that all four elements are met. You have to enjoy experiencing new things, acquire new knowledge and insights while you experiment and test, connect with other people who are searching too, and create some kind of output (an experiment) that gives you viable feedback for what to do next.
The execution mode is no exception to this rule. You have to somehow integrate all four elements into the execution, otherwise you will never be happy. It helps a lot if you see your execution commitments as fun, a hobby and relaxation. You absolutely have to make a dead-serious commitment to your goals, but it shouldn’t feel as an obligation or a chore, but more as the most fun part of your day.
You are definitely on the right path when you wake up every day and can’t wait to start doing all the things that you are committed to. For most of my days, I can’t wait to start working and executing. That’s how life should be. Waking up energized and excited, looking forward to all the activities and commitments you have on your to-do list.
Make sure you aren’t working hard for validation purposes. You want to work for fulfillment purposes.
Just make sure you aren’t working hard for validation purposes. You want to work for fulfillment purposes. That takes us back to the four mentioned elements of the search and the execution mode – enjoyment, growth, value creation and connection.
Search when you need to find your fit, and execute perfectly once you find it. Once you enter the execution mode, no retreat, no surrender should become your law. The best mental attitude you can have is: “Nothing will get in the way of me and a few daily hours dedicated to [enter your commitment].” Nothing. Day after day. That is a clear sign that you have successfully made the transition from the search mode to the execution mode.