The art of execution

A big problem which faces all organisations is actually getting things done. So, if you are an ed tech leader, what can you do about it in your school or department? Here are 5 key actions to take.

Intro: planning vs doing

There seems to be a tendency these days to confuse planning to do something with actually doing it. Don't get me wrong: without planning, even of the most rudimentary kind, your efforts are going to be far less fruitful than they could be. As the saying goes: failure to plan is planning to fail.

Now, planning in today's educational environment, at least in Britain, usually comprises a hierarchy of action which sees the corporate vision at the top, followed by a broad strategy setting out aims, followed by more detailed targets which address objectives. The purpose of the targets is to enable the organisation to fulfil its strategic aims.

Another way you could think of this hierarchy is that it is moving from a strategic to an operational mode, in which the latter is concerned with the detail. Unfortunately, in all too many establishments, the strategists do not wish to get their hands dirty with operational matters, and the people charged with actually doing things do not share, or are not aware of, the overarching vision.

Does that matter? Well yes it does, because it means that there is a good chance that the strategic aims will simply not be achieved, because in reality nobody is taking responsibility for making sure that they are.

But at some point you have to actually do something! Photo by Steve Jurvetson

Ensuring that things actually get done is known as "execution", and it's your responsibility as a leader to make sure that execution is a mantra throughout your entire team. So how do you go about making that happen? You need to do the following:

Step 1: Know what you want

Have a clear idea of what you want educational ICT to achieve. Call this a vision if you like, but I would say don't get hung up on so-called "mission statements" or meaningless phrases. When I see straplines in advertisements like "striving for excellence" or "Because children matter" (I made those two up, but if you have actually seen them please let me know so I can change them!) I conclude that someone has too much time on their hands and should be doing a proper job instead of generating meaningless trivia like that. So don't try to be clever or witty, just say what you want to achieve as succinctly and comprehensibly as possible.

Step 2: Create a supportive team

Make sure you have a team that supports the vision. You can do that by involving them in thinking about the vision and making sure they have had a hand in framing it, so that it's a shared vision. But if you think that taking the team on an away day, or having a day's in-service training, to brainstorm the vision is going to be enough, you have a shock coming. That is just the beginning. Each member of the team must know how their particular skills contribute to the realisation of the vision. That's quite hard to do. In my experience, technical support people, for example, see their role as keeping things going, without seeing how they contribute to the bigger picture. You need to get everyone -- technicians, classroom assistants, parents -- to understand what the overall vision is and how they can help to realise it.

Step 3: Deliver the goods

There has to be a bottom line, in terms of things getting done. My bottom line is very simple: if you undertake a commitment, you have to deliver. And if you can't deliver because someone else is holding you up, don't give up, but deal with it. This is tied in with the next point.

Step 4: Take responsibility

There needs to be responsibility. I have always taken the view that with regards to the things I know about, I don't know everything, and in respect of the things I don't know about I need to appoint or create someone who does. Having done that, I share the responsibility, which means that I set up a situation in which each person is critically important to the overall success of the team. But -- and this is crucial -- I take the ultimate management responsibility.

Let me try to give you a flavour of what this means

Firstly, when I was a Head of Department in a school, when it came to delivering the scheme of work I asked each member of the team to take responsibility for a unit of work. That meant looking at the objectives for that topic, finding resources, drawing up outline lesson plans and running one or two training sessions for the rest of us so that we could teach the unit and use the resources properly. I did make myself available to hold people's hand, metaphorically, where necessary, such as in the case of newly-qualified teachers, but the unit was theirs, which meant that the responsibility was theirs. That sort of approach is extremely effective in helping people grow in the job and start to think in a leadership way themselves, and therefore to promote the overall vision without needing to become a sort of Stepford wife.

Secondly, when I led a large team of people who were dealing with technical things I didn't understand, but which I had to make decision about, I had a deal with them, in effect, which went like this. You give me advice based on your technical knowledge, and I will take the managerial decision about it. If my decision turns out to be the wrong one, I will carry the can and you will not be held accountable -- unless I discover that you misled me, either deliberately or through incompetence, in which case you will be on the carpet.

Step 5: Know what’s going on – and what isn’t

The art of execution in a nutshell is this: don't think that drawing up plans and lines of responsibility on paper is the same as delivering the goods. You need to know what is actually going on in practice, and to insist on knowing why something that should have happened hasn't.

An earlier version of this article was first published in 2008. I think th content still stands, don’t you?

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