Wanna make a difference? Put your head down and get to work.
Execution is what counts.
A few weeks ago Bill Maher, of the political comedy show REAL TIME, introduced a comical award he would be giving to lawmakers: “The Baldy.” The Baldy honors lawmakers that you’ve never heard of who do the granular, often unrewarded work of actually legislating. The first recipient was Henry Waxman, a congressman you might not have heard of but has been a major author of policies including the ACA, Chip & Medicaid expansion, Clean Air act ammendments, and more
While watching this I cheered, not because I love congressman Waxman. (I too had barely heard of Waxman prior to the bit.) But I love the spirit of the award. In an age where anyone can be an “activist” by posting a black square on Instagram, we cannot forget that substantive change is often made in boring meetings and detailed memos. This is true in government, social enterprises, non-profits, and private businesses.
Smart business investors increasingly care less about strategy than execution. This goes the same for change-makers. Strategy is exciting, full of possibilities, has a built-in bias for success, and looks at the bigger picture. In strategy sessions we can wax philosphical about justice, and Theories of Change. Execution is mundane, often repetitive, detail-oriented, and by nature “In-the weeds.” When focusing on execution, a well built spreadsheet can make all the difference. While I LOVE strategic thinking, the truth is that execution will strategy for lunch.
One doesn’t have to travel far to find examples of critical but un-sexy projects that were important innovations to the success of an endeavor.
Here is a fantastic Twitter thread on why database management is and will continue to be critical for governement policy success. Essentially, we don’t get a city of the future without good database infrastructure.
Then there is SASB, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board. SASB isat is trying to create a standard set of rules and metrics to account for environmental externalities to businesses, just as FASB (Financial Accounting Standards Board) helped establish the rules for financial accounting before them. Having universally accepted, business-relevant metrics to account for environmental affects of a business will pave the way for properly valuing businesses within their proper context.
There are even more boring examples than those. Any non-profit fundraising professional worth their salt will espouse the merit of a well-maintained donor & volunteer database. A big promise to reduce a business’s carbon emmission might get made at the top, but it happens because the supply chain guy finds a new vendor. A lot of time change comes down to a boring meeting, a good sreadsheet, a consistent effort, and attention to detail.
So I challenge all the changemakers out there. Where in your organization can dedication to the mundane details of execution can you transform an idea into a tangible result with excellent outcomes? Hint: It’s likey in the unsexy part of your work. It's likely in the weeds, where no one wants to look. It’s likely very boring.