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Effective Leadership

THE DRUMBEAT OF EXECUTION: Why Rhythm Matters in High-Performing Teams

Excecution flow

Take two metronomes and place them at opposite ends of a room. Set them in motion and watch what happens. Both tick away in each other’s own separate rhythm never aligning or getting in sync with each other. But, place both of those metronomes on a smaller, free-standing platform, set the metronomes in unsynchronized motion, and watch what happens.

So long as the metronomes can ‘feel’ each other’s vibrations, the two will naturally synchronize. Why is this? The very subtle vibrations each metronome sends into the platform interact in a complex way affecting the swing of the arms until the two meet synchrony.

If you are wondering if the physics of two self-regulating metronomes is really related to complex human systems, there is strong evidence that suggests it is. In psychology, social conformity is one of the most basic and widely accepted phenomena. Individuals within a group tend to meet conformance and harmony, much like the metronomes.

For instance, the MIT professor Alex Pentland has monitored moment-to-moment interaction between people to discover what we probably always knew – that we are affected most by our close social networks, our friends and others that we engage socially with on a regular basis. He calls this phenomenon social physics which is explained in his recent book of the same name. Connectivity and proximity are important dynamics in human systems.

Photograph of MIT professor Alex Pentland.

As Edgar Schein, a renowned scholar of organizational culture, has pointed out, culture is a phenomenon that operates below the surface, that it is invisible and to a considerable degree unconscious. Like the subtle vibrations that eventually synchronize the two metronomes, culture works behind the scenes, almost imperceptibly, to affect how the organization functions for good or ill.

As the metronome provides guidance to a single musician or a group of musicians, simple coördination via a simple process provides the guidance to align an organization. The U.S. military possesses a more clear means than the invisible or imperceptible influences of culture. In the military, it’s called battle rhythm.

Simply defined, battle rhythm is the span of time between the commander’s decision and the execution of that decision by the action units. But there is much more taking place in the actual practice of battle rhythm in military operations. Not only is there a regular pace of planning followed by iterative execution, learning is formalized through practices such as debriefing and after action reviews (AAR). That learning cascades up to tell the next iteration of planning – all to a coördinated rhythm and structured collaborations.

Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi

The two Japanese management scholars, Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi, recognized the significance of these ‘structured collaborations’ and called them a field of interaction. In their landmark book, The Knowledge Creating Company (Oxford University Press, 1995), they point out the need for a rhythmic field of interaction. In it, they call for “. . . a field in which people can interact with each other through face-to-face dialogues. It is here that they share experiences and synchronize their bodily and mental rhythms.”i This coördinated rhythm serves to accelerate the achievement of common goals. It helps align the organization from top to bottom.

In the Flawless Execution® methodology, we call this simple idea, Execution Rhythm℠. What does Execution Rhythm look like? How is this field of interaction structured? To be effective, Execution Rhythm should have certain characteristics. It is cascading, aligning, disciplined, and discreet.

Execution Rhythm is Cascading.

Like a crew coxswain, the tempo is orchestrated from the top of the organization and cascades in step with that set rhythm throughout the organization. This cascading character of Execution Rhythm, like reverberating echoes across a canyon, helps close the gaps in learning and execution within organizations.

Execution Rhythm is Aligning.

It is not simply a form of coördination or communication. It seeks to align the total effort of the organization to a common purpose. The outwardly cascading signal provides the information needed for the top decision-making functions to align the activities of the entire organization.

Execution Rhythm is Disciplined.

All high-performing organizations have discipline. But, as the word ‘rhythm’ implies, the discipline required in an effective Execution Rhythm is one that maintains the pace of interaction set at the top-level. Being disciplined in Execution means maintaining a strict regimen that is regular, expected, and structured. If a marketing team has decided to hold weekly meetings to assess their progress toward a specific marketing plan, then they should hold those meetings at a consistent time and on a consistent day of the week. We are creatures of habit. Execution Rhythm should tap into and leverage that natural tendency. Habituation is the soul of discipline; and discipline the soul of execution.

Execution Rhythm is Discrete.

Discrete means that the rhythm’s individual cascading cycles keep pace with the rate of change. An organization that develops plans at the beginning of the year and assesses its progress at the end of that year does not have a discreet Execution Rhythm. In a world where major change takes place in some markets over the span of months and world-changing events can impact a business instantaneously, we can’t afford to have a casual Execution Rhythm.

Execution Rhythm becomes even more important as a consistent aligning force when chaotic events attempt to throw organizations into disarray. But, disciplined organizations will find that Execution Rhythm can easily be increased or decreased in response to changing circumstances.

A disciplined organization can increase or decrease its Execution Rhythm to respond to changing demands, seasonal fluctuations, or other threats and opportunities.

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William M. Duke is a retired Naval Officer and Master Practitioner of the Flawless Execution methodology.

He is the co-author of The Debrief Imperative (Premiere, 2011) and Down Range: A Transitioning Veteran’s Career Guide to Life’s Next Phase (Wiley, 2013).

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