Many of life’s best solutions, ideas gather dust for lack of execution

Monday July 06 2020

The truth is that work contracts or expands according to the time given. If you feel that you have a lot of time, you are likely to relax. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


Think of the number of conferences that you have attended as a leader where great ideas were discussed and even greater initiatives adopted yet years later, those initiatives remain in folders not executed.

One of the great problems today, be it in the public or private sectors or even at an individual level, is that of execution. Our problem, I am convinced, is not that we do not know what to do but rather we do not do what we know. The solutions to many of life's problems are not waiting to be discovered. They are waiting to be executed.

If execution is such a crucial part of life, why is it then that it is such a big problem?

“I have two kinds of problems: The urgent and the important. The urgent are not important and the important are never urgent,” said former US president Dwight Eisenhower quoting J. Roscoe Miller, president of Northwestern University.

This method later became known as the Eisenhower Matrix and has become a very practical guide for helping the decision making process. Stephen Covey popularised it even more in the book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He showed that tasks can be put in four quadrants, the first being the things that are urgent and important. The second is for the things that are important but not urgent. The third quadrant is for the things that are urgent but not important while the fourth is for the things that are not important and not urgent.

Let us focus on the first and second quadrants. The ideal is to try to live in quadrant two because once you’re in quadrant one, you are no longer in control. Quadrant two is where you have control and are in charge of things. In quadrant one, you are in reactionary mode and this is the quadrant of high pressure. So, for most things, the idea is to be a quadrant two person who attends to things and executes them when they are important but not urgent.


When training on execution, I split participants into four or five groups. I then give each group a secret task to accomplish and the time allotted for them to accomplish it. To one group I will assign 30 minutes, to another, 15 minutes, to another five minutes and to another, one minute. What they all do not know is that they all have the same secret task. What is different is the time given to accomplish it. The results are the same all of the time.

The group that was given one minute always finish first and when examined they cracked the assignment very well. The other groups relaxed because they felt they had more than enough time. The group given 30 minutes spend too much time discussing how they will go about the task.

The truth is that work contracts or expands according to the time given. If you feel that you have a lot of time, you are likely to relax. If you feel that you have no time at all, you are most likely going to get straight to the important and strategic things.

With this in mind, let us go back to Eisenhower's matrix. One of the strategies adopted by the best executors is to induce a state of emergency. This sense of urgency has a way of triggering innovation and creativity. It also helps to cut out the irrelevancies and get to the important and strategic aspects quickly.

Wale Akinyemi is the chief transformation officer, PowerTalks