The 4 Disciplines of Execution

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It’s one thing to come up with a good idea and a strategy to deliver but to execute the strategy is a different ball game. This article takes a look at how to implement the 4 Disciplines of Execution [1] in project management. The disciplines are guidelines to assist with the execution of a projects strategy. Strategies and methods can easily change while it is more difficult to affect behaviours. Human behaviour is a key factor behind the complexity of undertaking a project [2]. If you want to take on a task you have never done before, you might also have to do things you have never done before. The authors of the 4 Disciplines of Execution refer to the whirlwind to be the greatest enemy of execution. The whirlwind is describes as “the massive amount of energy that’s necessary just to keep your operation going on a day-to-day basis”. The disciplines protect the execution of a project from the chaos of the whirlwind.

This article will introduce and provide context to 4DX. Listing down each discipline: Focus on your WIG, Act on the Lead Measures, Put up a Scoreboard and Cadence of Accountability. Explaining them, how they are applied and how they might be beneficial working with projects. Finally the limitations of the tool will be addressed.

Big Idea

Strategy and Execution

In real life project managers can influence two things when it comes to providing results. The strategy and the execution of that strategy. One of the most common reasons for limited success of organizations is the inability to execute their corporate strategy [3]. To come up with a plan is considered the easy part but how to follow through that plan and get people on board has proven difficult. The ability to be able to execute strategy is critical when it comes to creating value for the organization. There are few concrete approached to execute and it has been proven very difficult to develop such an approach. There are countless reason behind these difficulties. One of them being the human factor and the behaviour of the people of the organization [3]. For many projects it is required that staff change their behaviour. People react differently towards change and it can be hard to get them to cooperate. But more is needed. The real problem is getting them to commit fully towards the project. Bain & Company conducted a study on organizational change and reported these findings: “About 65 percent of initiatives required significant behavioural change on the part of front-line employees – something that managers often fail to consider or plan for in advance” [4].

The Real Problem

The authors of the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution carried out various studies to find out why execution was such a big problem and came to the realization that clarity of the objective was lacking for a big portion of staff in various organizations. The distance from those who created the objective and strategy of organization and those who are supposed to act on those ideas had a big affect on the clarity. Another problem was a lack of commitment towards the organizations goals for those who actually knew them. It was also clear that staff were not held accountable for achieving these goals. Of several reason why execution is so inconsistent these stood out [1]. According to the PMBOK guide [2] the project manager and their team should have knowledge and be able to explain all of these aspect mentioned above. So what is the real reason behind these problems?

The Whirlwind

The real reason is your job. The whirlwind of day to day obligations and what is needed to be done on a daily basis so that the business can run properly. This is what is considered the main villain of execution. It is easy to imagine that if an organization is working towards unclear or many goals that it can get swallowed up and side-lined by the whirlwind. There are problems with leaders to distinguish between the whirlwind and strategic goals. For the organization to survive it needs both. The two will always fight for the time and energy of the staff. The whirlwind being more urgent tends to have the upper hand in that battle. While the goals set be the organization are still important, urgent beats important. To be clear the whirlwind is not a bad thing. On the contrary it is what keep a organization running. It is however the main distraction of execution. So employees might not after all lack the ambition of carrying out the goals of an organization, they are just trying to survive in the whirlwind.

After coming to these conclusions to why execution is a weak point the authors implemented the 4DX principles over 1500 times before the tool was ready and released [1]. The 4 disciplines of execution is presented as a powerful and simple solution to create a winnable game by identifying and focus on executing the most important goals set by each organization [5]. Projects can fail and there are infinite reasons to why they might fail. The inability to focus on the key strategy and to follow through a project are examples to why projects can be unsuccessful [6]. The disciplines are meant to create a bridge from strategy to execution.

The Four Disciplines

Discipline 1: Focus on the Wildly Important

Don’t take on more then you are able to handle. It is easy to get carried away with many ideas that show great potential. But in real life the more you set up to do, the less will get carry out. This is a big challenge because it is tempting to say yes to every good idea. In the 2018 lesson-packed workshops, based on The Four Principles of Execution, Chris McChesney said “Good ideas have to be killed. There will always be more good ideas than there is capacity to execute.” [7]. With that in mind the first challenge is to focus on the wildly important. The idea is to fucus on less to achieve more. Identify one or two at most critical goals. All attention outside the normal day-to-day work will be on focussing solely on these goals instead of contributing a fraction towards many goals. These goals are known as the Wildly Important goals, or WIG. When a WIG has been recognized it is easier to let it fit into the whirlwind and become a habit. If the team is trying to execute more then 2 goals it is easier to loose focus. It can eventually be seen as a burden while trying to survive the whirlwind.

Discipline 2: Act on the Lead Measures

The impact of actions can differ while working towards a goal. It is important to identify the ones that have the most impact at any given time in the process. There are two different types of measures. Lead measures and lag measures. Lag measures are previous information and can help to understand where the project currently stands. These are measure which you can not act on. It is like looking into the rear view mirror. It is not a good idea to act on the lag measures much as it’s not a good idea to drive a car while only looking into the rear view mirror. Lead measures can predict if the WIG will be a success. Unlike lag measures they can be influenced. Acting on lead measures can influence the success of future lag measures. It can be explained like a game of chess. The WIG is to win the game. The lag measure is all the previous moves made by you and your opponent while the lead measures is your next moves. By focussing on the board as it is you will be able to affect the outcome and get closer to the WIG.

Team leaders can get lost in focussing on the lag measures as they tell the current state of the process of achieving the WIG. Lag measures are important though, it is what the team ultimately want to achieve.

Discipline 3: Put up a Scoreboard

It is important to know the score at all times. Teams and people act differently while keeping score. The scoreboard is not for the team leader, it is there to motivate the staff. To be able to see if you are winning are loosing will make you act differently. Without knowing the current score staff might be more distracted by the whirlwind. If discipline 1 and 2 are carried out correctly the game of achieving the WIG is a winnable game.

Discipline 4: Cadence of accountability

Schedule a repeated meeting, at least once a week, where team members can hold each other accountable. During these meetings the whirlwind is left behind and discuss the performance to each members lead measures since the last meeting and how to move forward. This is where the execution really happens. The first three disciplines are mainly preparation towards the fourth. The meeting is a platform to hold each other accountable so that the goals set by the team wont get lost in the whirlwind. Preferably these meeting should be brief and happen on a regular basis. During these meetings the last week should be discussed and a plan for the coming week should be conducted. This is also a good time to reflect on the scoreboard. The magic of these meeting is that each team member will create their own commitment towards the WIG, creating more ownership of the solution will motivate them to follow through with their commitments. By having these meeting regularly the plan adapts quicker and will keep up with every sudden change, events that might not have been thought off when creating the annual strategic plan.

When a project fails managers tend to focus on the lost costs. It can be forgotten that people have a winning instinct and the impact of failure will also count towards the human factor. 4DX takes that into account and creates a winnable game for a team of people.


Application of each discipline

1. Identify a WIG

Behind a strong team there can be a lot of good ideas. It is important for those ideas to be presented. The team should conduct a brainstorming session and come up with ideas towards meeting the entire organizations goal. It is however crucial to be able to say no to most of those ideas. The goal is to find one or at most two WIGs. Identify how each idea will affect the organization and create a shortlist. The WIG should be hard but still achievable. The project manager should not decide the WIG, it should come from the team as it will give them ownership of the idea and create a passion towards meeting the goal. Finally the WIG should have a time frame and be measurable.

2. Acting on Lead measures

A good lead measures should predict the outcome of the WIG, like mentioned in the chess comparison. The team should chose the lead measures by brainstorming ideas on how to affect the overall outcome. Like when identifying a WIG a shortlist should be generated and each measure ranked. Unlike a WIG it is alright to pick a few measures and divide them between team members. The lead measures should affect the WIG, the team needs to decide if they are repeatable, they need to be able to move forward and be able to measure the performance.

3. Keeping a scoreboard

The scoreboard should be visible to all team members at all times to see if they are winning. The scoreboard should show the WIG and how it currently stands. All lead measures should also be on the board and their progress. The information on the board is to be updated regularly so that the team knows exactly where they stand at any given time. That being said the scoreboard should be simple and easy to read.

4. Accountability

The most crucial discipline but only exists because of its predecessors. To keep the flow of the project a reoccurring meeting for all team members should be scheduled. No longer then 20 – 30 minutes meeting preferably on a weekly basis. During these meeting each team member will be able to present to the team how they met last weeks goals and how those actions helped toward the WIG and to inform the team on how they plan to commit towards the WIG for the coming week. The team should also take time to look at the scoreboard and learn from the previous week. New commitments should be made while also honouring and celebrating the previous week. This should be a safe space where each member should feel comfortable with asking for help and also sharing their experience.


Stage 1: Getting Clear

The team and their leader commit to a new level of performance. Clear WIGs, lag and lead measures have been developed and a scoreboard is in place. Weekly WIG meetings have been scheduled and the team is ready to commit to the project. It’s important that the team is involved in early on so that the team members will be more motivated.

Stage 2: Launch

The team is ready and are awaiting kick off. Have a team huddle and launch them into working on the WIG. The team will need intense involvement from the leader and themselves to begin with. It is always hard to start something new. It’s not guarantied that this stage will go smoothly. There will be some resistance and getting everyone on board.

Stage 3: Adoption

Team members will learn to work within the new system and adopt the 4DX process to achieve their WIG. At this stage resistance might begin to fade as the team begins to see the progress on the scoreboard at any given moment. The team becomes accountable for each others actions. This stage will take its time so be patient.

Stage 4: Optimization

At this stage the team should have the 4DX mindset. They begin to produce actual results and become more and more purposeful as it happens. Now the team is playing the game to win it and will start to optimize their performance to win the game.

Stage 5: Habit

If and when 4DX becomes a habit the teams will start to reach their goals and their performance should rise. 4DX is about getting results but it is also about creating a culture of excellent execution.



The authors of the book present the disciplines as a holy grail with no conflicts and incompletions. The application of the tool comes with several changes all at once and expect everyone to be onboard from the get go. If managers would concentrate on implementing the tool all at once the focus of the process becomes the main idea while not on the outcome.

Implementing the tool is really a huge change in the social environment and structure of an organization. While the book provides a good structure for the tool it does not address the problems of change management. It is hard to get staff to change their normal day to day routine.

Without an experienced member or manager it could be easy for the team to get carried away with ideas and start to come up with to easy tasks or to ambitious goals which wont be met. This could ultimately have a bad influence on morale. If WIGs are not identified correctly it can be hard to follow up on their progress.

This tool might work well chaotic workplace with a lot of staff and constant stimuli where staff see the goals as an escape from their whirlwind. While it might have the exact opposite affect elsewhere and have discouraging affect on the staff. In some project things need to get done and done quickly and staff will see this as a burden. These meeting could make staff less independent and rely on the weekly team meetings to get approval and recognition from the team. You do not need to decide in a meeting who should take out the trash you do it when the bin is full.


4DX tackles one of the biggest problem with projects, being able to execute. The tool provides somewhat simple disciplines of execution. The tool is not a theory it is proven principles that have been tested by hundreds of organisations [8].

The tool creates a culture for teams and can boost morale of the workplace. Everybody is working towards the same goal and the tool make that goal clearer and creates a winnable game for the team.

Like mentioned above the tool works well in a workplace where a lot of things go on each day and other projects can seem pointless and not as crucial so that the business runs. For example a call centre where everyone is focussed on answering every customer. It can be easy to see that all extra work around that kind of workplace might not be popular. 4DX makes sure that working on the organizations goals wont get lost in the whirlwind.

Annotated Bibliography

McChasney C, Covey S, Huling J. The 4 disciplines of execution. New York: Free press. 2012 [1]: The article is mainly constructed with the help of this book. This book covers every single aspect of the 4 Disciplines of Execution as it is written solely on this tool. The book is also filled with real examples and references a lot of case studies.

Execution: The 4 Disciplines. Franklin Covey. Published 2021 [8]: This article covers a short introduction of the tool and is followed by several case studies. These case studies are a good example of the success the tool can bring.

4. Naish J. Is multi-tasking bad for your brain? Experts reveal the hidden perils of juggling too many jobs. Daily Mail Online. [9]: This is an interesting article about multitasking. Is it really a strong skill to be able to multitask or can it be distracting you more than you know. The article provides a strong argument for using 4DX and concentrate on the most important goals.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 McChasney C, Covey S, Huling J. The 4 Disciplines of Execution. New York : Free Press, [2012] ©2012.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Project Management: A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK guide) 6th Edition (2017).
  3. 3.0 3.1 Pennypacked J.S, Ritchie P. The four Ps of strategy execution Paper presented at PMI Global Congress - North America (2005).
  4. Litre P, Bird A, Carey G, Meehan P. Results Delivery: Busting Three Common Myths of Change Management Insights, Bain & Company (2011).
  5. Joise, M. 8 Ways To Boost Your Teams Commitment to Goals 6th Edition (2017).
  6. Discenza R, Forman J.B. Seven causes of project failure: how to recognize them and how to initiate project recovery. Paper presented at PMI Global Congress - North America (2007).
  7. McChesney C. "7 Practical lessons on team productivity." The Growth Faculty. Published 2021. Accessed February 18, 2021.
  8. 8.0 8.1 "Execution: The 4 Disciplines". Franklin Covey. Published 2021. Accessed February 22, 2021.
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