Get s*** done — How to prioritize outcomes over tasks

May 20, 2024
6 min read
Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash
"Without execution, strategy is just a dream."
Peter Drucker

Execution validates strategy.

That’s a Rose-ism—a piece of axiomatic lore that sounds right and is right. Strong execution of a bad strategy may feel good but won’t get you where you want to go. Flailing execution of a good strategy leads to finger-pointing, failure, and a return to the drawing board.

Whatever your job, it’s your job to execute.

The word comes from the Latin Exsequi—a fancy way of saying ‘to carry out.’  More Latin—Acta Non Verba; deeds, not words.

The least fancy way to say it—GSD. Get s*** done.

Exsequi is the root word for Executive. It’s the foundation of executive function—the part of our brain that handles carrying out tasks and making decisions. It’s the nub of executive presence—which returns us nicely to deeds, not words.

But what does all this Latin and wordsmithery mean, practically? It means:

  1. Getting to outcomes, not scheduling tasks.
  2. Getting to, not putting off. Acting with urgency and pushing.
  3. Simplifying, Saying no, removing things, not adding things.
  4. Building capability and muscle on the team.
  5. Translating, not auditing.
  6. Giving people the space to lead change.

For some, it’s in the job title—executive. But how do you get better at this Excsequi thing?

#1. Work to outcomes, not tasks.

The biggest obstacle to GSD—the ‘D.’

When you’re looking down the barrel of an imminent product launch, about to go live with an event; you find dots left unconnected.  D becomes delay, not done.

You walk through the project plan. The team reports in. “My part works.” Each team member has checked off their task. “I did my bit.” But it doesn’t all work. And it only works—whatever it is—when it all works.

Many of us share a bad habit in the pursuit of productivity: focusing on managing tasks rather than on outcomes. Outcomes are the north star; tasks are just steps along the path. In the endorphin rush of finishing something, we forget the end result is what counts. Activity doesn’t matter, and how hard everyone worked doesn’t matter.

As a leader, you have to prioritize strategic objectives over transactional work. We have to continually connect dots—deeply understand customer needs—focus on solutions, not problems. This is an outcome mindset. It means leading the team to work systemically rather than tick off problems.

If this is something you want to practice, try asking yourself this:

What are we trying to achieve that will always be true? E.g., Customers will always want...

Does this task move the ball forward? How does it connect to the outcome?

What is the biggest barrier we have to remove to get to this outcome?

We have to lift our heads up when we have the urge to put our heads down.

#2. Act with and instill urgency.

Speed matters.

Speed captures competitive advantage. Speedy responses equal happy customers. Speed closes deals. Speed is the secret sauce behind innovation. But it's easy to give in to inertia.

Top executives have a bias for action. They roll up their sleeves and act. They hold people to a higher standard. They continually build momentum. They know that a good decision now with imperfect information will beat a perfect decision later. What they seek to avoid—missed opportunities; competitors moving faster, and seizing advantage.

Deadlines matter.

The little ritual of small, measurable goals with clear deadlines. “So, Julie, this will be sent out end of day Tuesday?” It’s amazing how many meetings are held without these small details—assigning a single person with a specific date. More likely, there’s a laundry list, with groups of people attached to it and a vague “as soon as possible.” As soon as possible leaves too much wiggle room.

Keep the momentum going with regular updates, celebrating wins, and providing help and clarity. Remove obstacles that get in the way. Encourage quick decision-making over lengthy deliberation.

If this is something you want to practice, try asking yourself this:

What is the risk we run by running late? What can we proactively do now?

How do we maintain speed and quality?

Who will be responsible for each specific task, and what is the exact deadline?

Speed drives success.

#3. Better to remove than add.

Subtraction beats addition.

That’s difficult for anyone. Shedding, deducting, reducing—all go against human nature. Given a list of things, it’s easier to add one than take one away. Confronted with project priorities, we would like more capacity, not fewer projects.

We’re just not good at simplification.

Instead, we like science projects. Adding feels like a contribution. It feels more creative. The result? We add complication to complexity. But subtraction works. If you have a struggling performer on your team, give them less to do, not more to do. Have them focus on one thing. If you have a change initiative that isn’t getting through, simplify the message. If you have a looming project deadline and a sense of panic, figure out the next best step.

Singular, not plural.

Learn to say no. Prioritize ruthlessly. Make tough decisions. Streamline. Subtract to create focus and efficiency. Great executives create clarity out of chaos. They define clear strategies, communicate priorities effectively, and ensure cohesive execution. They interpret strategy into action and help teams find an effective rhythm. They use simple rules to translate strategy.

If this is something you want to practice, try asking yourself this:

Does this help us meet our goals (OKRs), yes or no?

What is the busywork we can shed?

How do I say this more simply?

Simplicity is the hallmark of mastery.

#4. Optimize the team.

This, I believe, is the most common mistake leaders make.

It’s a trap I easily fall into. It’s invisible. I see it easily in other people, because there, it’s in your face. Leaders can either optimize the team around them or optimize the team.

The first one is easy. It feels more productive, more effective. But it isn’t.

Your work is done through people. Your job is to teach, to make their work easier, more productive, and effective. This is done by balancing TOUCH and TASK to suit the team and the situation. TOUCH is relationship—the trust, psychological safety, and security provided to show up as your best self at work.  TASK is the work—the priorities, expectations, and objectives that drive growth.

When you optimize the team, you cede control and give agency and autonomy. You provide alignment and support—the right combination of connection and guidance to enable team members to learn, grow, and perform at their best.

If this is something you want to practice, try asking yourself this:

What are the core strengths of each team member? How do I help them improve?

How can I better value and recognize what good looks like for the team?

Are the current team structures and rituals best suited to achieve collective success?

Put your team first and push them to GSD.

#5. Translate, don’t audit.

To translate is to work on context more than control.

This works to outcomes; it optimizes the team. You create clear alignment and push autonomy down. Translation is more collaboration, more coaching, more teaching. You use questions and stories to create context. This is taking the time to explain the reasoning behind a decision, not just a decision.

To audit is to correct.

Feedback is valuable. The right answer is usually better. But feedback that isn’t taken is useless. An answer that isn’t accepted is a waste of time. Auditing is directive, top-down, command, and control. It’s focused on short-term fixes, not long-term growth and development.

There are times when correction—auditing, is necessary.

Looming or missed deadlines, time-sensitive projects that need swift and decisive action, critical safety or compliance issues, and consistent underperformance—all short-term problems. In the long term, audit mode undermines trust and the team's effectiveness.

If this is something you want to practice, try asking yourself this:

Share context: what is the secret wish of the intended audience/ user of this project?

Tell stories: how have you engaged with, learned from, made mistakes with this intended audience/ user?

What is the top-of-mind question we must answer? What is a difficult question that we might have to answer?

Translation fosters learning, innovation, and growth. It optimizes the team.

#6. Lead change, not swirl.

Be the constant.

Imagine business as a whirling, roaring river. Too much information flows around you. You can only dip your head in the stream and drink, but you can’t possibly drink it all. Undercurrents of competing priorities and shoals of shifting priorities grab at you. In that change and chaos, people are overwhelmed. They revert to something that will help them stay afloat.

They do what they did yesterday.

Change stalls, and work slows. Your job is to create pools of stillness, not eddies of chaos, and to help teams find an effective rhythm in work. Give people the opportunity to tune out distractions and tune into what truly matters.

Effective executives have a keen sense of what really drives success. They relentlessly raise standards around the vital few priorities, not the trivial many distractions. They balance short-term execution with long-term vision, and they guide teams to outcomes, not just busywork.

Communicate your vision and strategy at every level, at every turn. Prioritize ruthlessly. Run with simple rules. Create a roadmap of what lies ahead and establish rituals to create alignment and improvement.

If this is something you want to practice, try asking yourself this:

What narratives am I amplifying unintentionally? Can I get clearer?

How am I balancing speed and stability?

Where is my blindspot, where am I getting stuck?

Leading change is a clichéd marathon, not a sprint. The cliché doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

*** of course, the S*** stands for stuff. Did you think anything else?

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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