There is so much planning that goes into building a healthy team, a healthy culture, a healthy business. But all the planning in the world is worth little if the plan is not well executed. The ability to consistently execute your plans will always set you apart. This has always been true.

Before we jump into a simple, powerful formula for strategy execution, let’s provide some context around the current world of work within which we need to execute.

The current environment has forced many of us to grow in ways we would have never imagined. Healthy growth is positive, strong, sustained and serves all parties.  Healthy growth is a choice.  When you help others grow, you grow… and growing people fuel growing organizations.

Expansive research by Gallup clearly shows a clear shift is focus for today’s worker:

Past Today
My PaycheckMy Purpose
My SatisfactionMy Development
My BossMy Coach
My Annual ReviewMy Ongoing Conversations
My WeaknessesMy Strengths
My JobMy Life

This filed-tested is aligned with the unique needs of today’s worker and the requirements for today’s leader. It predictably yields healthy growth for you, your employees, and your business.

Leadership is a force multiplier when it comes to the healthy growth. The leader sets the vision and expectations for the five growth factors. The result is healthy growth that is positive, strong, sustained, and serves all parties.

The bottom line is:

Healthy Leadership x 5 Growth Factors = Healthy Growth


Take this free, 3-minute Healthy Growth Check-up and receive a real-time feedback report.

Excellent Execution

Using this healthy growth process as a framework, we will focus on one of the five growth factors:

Excellent Execution

What is Adherence?

In business and in life, the game is usually won by those who can consistently execute a well-thought-out strategy. In other words, winners stick with it—they practice adherence. Adherence is the ability to consistently execute. Not coincidentally, the word “adherence” appears to have originated in the 1500s from the French word “adherer,” which means “to stick to.” Adherence is the critical link between strategy (knowing) and results (doing). Therefore, it is the solution to the knowing-doing gap. Winning requires adherence because successful execution of your plan is not a one-time event but rather steady progress over an extended period of time.

No discussion about the concept of adherence would be complete without mentioning one man who likely knew more about adherence in his day than any other: George de Mestral. George was a Swiss engineer and part-time inventor. A simple incident in 1948 changed the course of his life and led to a common product that is still used all over the world.

While he was out hunting with his dog one day, George found that his pants and his dog’s fur were covered with burdock burrs. He had such difficulty removing the burrs that he became intrigued with the little seeds’ pods. Later when he was back home, he examined one under a microscope. George noticed that it was covered with hundreds of tiny “hooks” that allowed it to grab hold of strands of clothing or fur. Inspired by nature’s ingenuity, he conceived the idea for a similar fastener based on the burr’s design.

After several years of trial and error and working with a weaver in France, George perfected the design for his “locking tape.” He called his invention Velcro®, from the French words velours and crochet (meaning “velvet” and “hook”). Velcro was officially introduced in 1960, but it was not an immediate commercial success. It took some time before people began to grasp its many applications. Eventually, it was adopted by industries as varied as aerospace and children’s clothing, making de Mestral a multimillionaire many times over.

Today, Velcro is a household name. It is found in everything from sneakers and wallets to blood-pressure cuffs and toys. It was used on the space shuttle and helped hold a human heart together during the first artificial heart surgery. It was even used as a piece of comedic genius in 1984 when late night talk show host David Letterman launched himself from a trampoline onto a Velcro wall while wearing a Velcro suit. He stuck.

It took George de Mestral 12 years from the day he first encountered those sticky burrs to the time he brought his locking tape idea to market and even longer for it to become a success. Not only did he tenaciously stick to his plan, but the product he planned and then executed literally stuck to him. So, when you think of adherence, think of George de Mestral. Perhaps we should dub him “the father of adherence.” He stuck with it long enough to create one of the stickiest materials we know.

The Adherence Equation

So how do you achieve adherence? How can you ensure that you will stick with your strategy long enough to win? Fortunately, adherence is a skill that can be learned. Based on the experiences of winning individuals, teams, and organizations, we have identified three components of adherence:

Focus provides the clarity necessary to make decisions that support your most important goals. It results in a clearly defined pathway to success. A sharp focus answers the “what” question – What do you need to do to execute your strategy?

Competence is used in the broadest sense of the term. It encompasses all the skills, systems, processes and tools a team uses to achieve its goals. The result is the ability to commit to, measure and hit your targets. Building competence answers the “how” question – Howwill you execute your strategy?

Passion creates a sense of connectedness. It creates a connection between teammates, a connection to our human need for meaningful work and a connection to each individual’s sense of value and contribution. Igniting passion answers the “why” question – Why are you executing your strategy?

Adherence Model

When you think about adherence this way, the critical role of each component becomes clear. From elementary school math we know that if any multiplier in an equation is 0, then the product is 0. For example, assume that each of the three components—focus, competence, and passion—are rated on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being the lowest and 10 being the highest. If any one of the three components is missing, (e.g., focus = 0), then there is no adherence:


The three adherence components are interrelated, meaning that changes in one affect changes in the others, similar to the way the various systems of the human body affect one another. As you address one component of the equation—or conversely, as you ignore one—you will see direct implications in the other two. Consider what happens with a modest improvement in all three components:


A modest improvement in each component produces a 73 percent increase in adherence (125 to 216). This underscores the compounding relationship among these components. Focus, competence, and passion are equally important and more powerful together. This interrelationship creates a multiplier effect that can work for you (or against you if the components are not managed). Enhancing one component creates a multiplier effect on your adherence. As we discuss each of the three components, you will see the connections and notice that focus, competence, and passion are not three distinct and separate elements; rather, they are interconnected dynamics that influence and build upon each other.

The Art of Adherence

Achieving adherence is simple but not necessarily easy. It takes skill and creativity to continually nurture focus, competence, and passion with your team. This is why we call it the art of adherence.

The art of adherence is a lot like growing Indian Thorny bamboo, which is native to Asia. Like many bamboo species, when this particular seed is planted, it requires the right amount of watering, sunlight, care, and feeding. It takes up to two years of this kind of careful attention for the bamboo to build a strong root structure, which is not visible aboveground. However, once the sprout finally breaks through the earth, the Indian Thorny bamboo can grow up to 100 feet in a month!

When you consistently sharpen focus, build competence, and ignite passion, you build a strong foundation for adherence. Initially, you may not see many tangible results. But rest assured that things are happening beyond your sight. Adherence is growing. Leaders and team members begin to stick with it, to execute their plans consistently. Your team builds momentum as it adheres to its plan and achieves small goals that lead to bigger goals. The required effort decreases over time as actions become habits. Momentum continues to build, resulting in a self-reinforcing cycle of achievement. Then, seemingly overnight, your results will multiply.

Mastering the art of adherence is a primary job of every leader at every level of the organization, and the adherence equation is designed to help you do just that. It offers a proven way for you to consistently execute your plan.

“I think our lives are akin to the Chinese bamboo tree.
Sometimes we put forth effort, put forth effort, and put forth effort and nothing seems to happen.
But if you do the right things long enough,
you’ll receive the rewards of your efforts.”

S. Truett Cathy, Founder

The Role of Strategy

The quality of your strategy is certainly important in order for your team to win. However, it is not the primary factor in seizing victory. The primary factor in winning is adherence. Winning is achieved through adherence. Winning depends less on a brilliant plan than on consistent actions.

While it may at first seem counterintuitive, research shows that adherence is indeed more important than the quality of your plan. Fortune magazine and the Hay Group studied the issue of strategy execution. The researchers found that virtually all the companies in the study:

  • Saw strategy as important
  • Had detailed implementation plans
  • Used strategy to help identify what to stop doing.

All the companies seemed to talk the “planning and strategy talk.” However, these factors were not what differentiated the companies in the study from those that made Fortune’s Top Ten Most Admired list. The characteristics that were unique to the Top Ten Most Admired Companies and separated them from their industries peers were:

  • Roles were clearly defined for executives, managers, and employees (focus).
  • Leaders were held accountable—both personally and for their team (competence).
  • Performance measurement was continuous and aligned with the strategy (competence).
  • Business visions and purpose were communicated deep into the organization (passion).

The researchers concluded that for the top 10 companies, strategy execution was not an exercise—it was the focus of everything they did: “Even in highly competitive and rapidly changing environments, most admired companies are distinguished by their success in executing against strategic plans.” In other words, they had strong adherence to their plans. These companies knew how to create a strategy; but more important, they achieved superior results because they knew how to stick with it.

What this tells us is that although a solid strategy is important, it only gets you in the game. Adherence to the strategy is what propels you into the winner’s circle.

Benefits of Adherence

Why is it so difficult for us to stick with our plan? Execution is difficult primarily because:

  • Leaders are trained to plan rather than to execute.
  • Senior leadership tends to leave execution to lower-level leaders and team members and to review progress only periodically.
  • Execution requires more people than strategy formulation. Developing strategy is typically done by relatively few people, whereas execution is a team-wide or business-wide endeavor.
  • Execution requires more time than strategy formulation. Developing strategy is one action step; execution is a continuous, long-term process.

The world’s most admired companies know how to stick with it. Below is a comparison of total shareholder returns for these same companies versus the S&P 500.

  Shareholder Returns for top 50 World’s Most Admired Companies Shareholder Returns for S&P 500
Year of Study 22.6% 15.1%
Previous 3 Years 4.3% (2.8%)
Previous 5 Years 8.3% 2.3%
Previous 10 Years 7.8% 1.4%

In every time period, the world’s most admired companies outperformed not only the competition within their industry but also the market as a whole. And over a 10-year period, their returns were 5x that of the S&P 500. These are compelling differences, particularly when you consider the simplicity of the four differentiating characteristics: strategy, structure, people, and leadership.

The difference between the world’s most admired companies and the rest of the pack is that they do the basics exceptionally well and they execute their strategies masterfully.

These findings confirm that having a strategy is only one piece of a winning formula. Disciplined execution is the game-changer. A survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit of 197 executives predicted that if they were to stick with it and become “very effective” at strategy execution, they would likely improve operating profits by an average of 30 percent over two years.

The bottom line:  A good plan gets you into the game, but consistent execution propels you into the winner’s circle.

This is consistent with our observations over 25 years. Winning teams develop solid strategies (not always great ones) but they spend lots of time and energy to ensure they adhere to their strategies. One way to express this relationship between strategy and adherence is this:

This equation shows that strategy has only an additive impact on your achievement level, whereas adherence has a multiplier effect on achievement. For instance, if you have a mediocre strategy (say a 4 on a scale of 0 to 10) and your adherence is average (focus = 4, competence = 5, passion = 6), your achievement level would be:

Now assume that you really work on your strategy and make it great—say a 9 out of 10:

All your efforts to improve your strategy would result in a modest increase in achievement from 122 to 129. But now let’s say that you put that same effort into adhering to your original strategy (even though it was a mediocre one) instead of focusing on improving the strategy itself. Even if you slightly improve on every component of adherence by only 1 point (focus = 5, competence = 6, passion = 7), your achievement level gets a significant boost:

Because of the multiplier effect, this small improvement in each component of adherence results in a greater than 72 percent increase in achievement level (124 to 214), and this is with a mediocre strategy. Imagine what would happen if you improved your adherence even a little bit more. This is why an average strategy with strong adherence tends to produce better results than a brilliant strategy with minimal adherence. So, spend more effort on adherence than on tweaking your strategy.

We certainly do not recommend blind adherence—sticking with a bad strategy at all costs. Winning organizations are keenly attuned to their marketplaces and are flexible enough to adjust strategies when necessary to address changing market conditions. However, leaders frequently tinker with strategy in ways that are often counterproductive. For example, new leaders typically feel pressure to “make their mark” on the team or organization. So, a common reaction of these leaders is to shift strategic direction, regardless of whether the previous strategy was working.

We frequently find that when a strategy doesn’t seem to be working, even seasoned leaders can be too quick to assume it’s the strategy that is faulty rather than the execution. The opposite is usually true; the problem is execution. Constantly tinkering with strategy inhibits success by not allowing the original strategy to take root. On the other hand, leaders who stick with it see results. You can observe this same principle in sports. Winning coaches tend to focus more on improving execution than on shifting strategy in reaction to a bad play, a loss, or a slump.

In 2011, the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks were a middle-of-the-pack playoff team (which is not saying much since more than half the teams make the playoffs). There were good odds that they would get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. That prospect did not faze Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. He stuck with his simple strategy of good passing, hustle, and team-oriented basketball, even against faster, stronger, more athletic teams. He continued to hone his team’s ability to execute its game plan. As a result, the Mavericks were able to beat perennial powerhouses like the Los Angeles Lakers. We ultimately enjoyed watching our hometown team win the NBA championship by out-executing a Miami Heat team that had more youth, speed, and talent.

The ultimate competitive advantage, organizationally or personally— and even in sports—is being the very best at adhering to your strategy. If you do not adhere to your plan—even the very best plan— it is like having a great blueprint for a new house but never building it. It’s just a plan, so don’t start inviting friends over for the housewarming party yet.

If you want to win, a good plan is necessary but not sufficient. You also have to stick with it to make your plan a reality.


Get started with this 2-minute Adherence Assessment


Adherence Model
  • Keep it Simple
  • Identify our One Thing
  • Know when to say “No”
  • Keep it Visible
  • Treasure your Talent
  • Get Systematic
  • Balance Your View
  • Boost Accountability with Specifics
  • Paint the Picture
  • Give What You Want
  • Value Your Values
  • Create Connections

Get started…

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