Closing the Gap with an Execution Strategy

Written by:
William M. Duke

Execution Strategy Delivered by Focusing on Reducing Execution Gaps

Way back in 1885 Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist, famously demonstrated something everyone already knew; that people start forgetting what they learn as soon as they learn it. In his “forgetting curve,” he demonstrated that humans forget half of what they learn within an hour of learning it and a full 2/3 by the following day. Since, psychologists have discovered that there are many ways to improve retention and memory which increases individual, team and organizational execution strategy.

As we strive for success in our chosen professions, the principles of the military are a strong foundation upon which to base our leadership style and personal development. Among the many military professionals, few rise to join elite teams such as the Army Rangers, Navy SEALs or Air Force Thunderbirds. These men and women collectively, are the epitome of high performing organizations and teams. Groups don’t become teams because that is what someone calls them. They become teams because they have a deliberate development process and share a common passion greater than themselves.

Flawless Execution Allows You to Gain On the Competition

If memory is so fragile, what is its impact on our execution strategy – getting the things done that you and your team should and plan to do to allow you to gain the advantage over your competition? Execution errors and failures continue to plague teams and organizations. These failures create an execution gap; a gap between what an individual or team plans to do and what it actually does. Just as retention rapidly degrades after learning, so does execution after planning. What can be done?

Without a perfect level of retention, flawless execution will falter. But, just as there are techniques to improve individual retention after learning, there are techniques to improve team execution after planning. One of these is the Execution Gap, or X-Gap. In principle, the X-Gap is simple – get the team together at regular intervals during the execution of a plan or project, address the progress of each individual task that must be performed, and take action before progress falls behind.

Good Strategy and Execution Lets You Get Ahead

Leading an effective X-Gap requires a commitment to four basic principles – focus, resolution, action, and frequency. These steps are the key to good strategy and execution which will put you ahead of the competition every time.

1. Focus

First, X-Gaps should be short and focused only on the tasks required. An X-Gap is not an opportunity for open discussion, complex problem solving, or the exchange of general information. It has only one item on the agenda – the review of all due and open tasks within the plan. The leader convenes the meeting on time and proceeds task-by-task through the plan by asking each task owner to report their progress. The X-Gap leader’s purpose is to identify and isolate tasks that are at risk of not being completed on time or those that are already past due and review them further.

2. Resolution

The second basic principle of the X-Gap is to take action to resolve uncertainty, ambiguity, and any other obstacles. Once execution gaps are exposed, the leader should make decisions and possibly reallocate resources in order to close those gaps. Some explanation and discussion is usually necessary. Therefore, X-Gap leaders must remain on their guard against unproductive, rambling discussions. Those responsible for the task targeted for discussion should succinctly explain the issue to the team and state what they believe they need in order to accomplish the task – to close the gap. As a rule of thumb, any task that requires more than 2 minutes to explain and discuss should be referred to a separate discussion to take place after the X-Gap.

3. Action

Third, X-Gap should identify specific actions that must take place unless all tasks are completed or on task as planned. Leaders should take care to either clearly indicate the actions that must take place as a result of the task review process, or indicate how and when decisions or other resolutions will take place and who is responsible for them. If additional resources are required, who will acquire them and by when? If further deliberation is required to achieve a decision, when will this take place and who will be a part of the discussion? Never allow an X-Gap to conclude without clarity around next actions.

4. Frequency

Finally, X-Gaps should be a regularly occurring event that aligns with the team or organization’s overall Execution Rhythm. If the team holds an X-Gap every Monday morning at 10 am, for example, the team will be able to anticipate, participate more fully, and prepare more thoroughly. Preparation is the key to a successful X-Gap. Team members report to the X-Gap at their pre-designated time and place with a complete status of their assigned tasks in the plan. Participants should be prepared to answer the question: “What do you believe is required to move forward?” Of course, there are often certain dependencies outside an individual team member’s control that may be the underlying cause. Hence, the purpose of the X-Gap is to expose these issues and address them appropriately as a team. Good preparation also means that, for anyone unable to attend the X-Gap, someone else can stand in for them and provide a status of the task and discuss what is needed to move forward.

The X-Gap Leads Off Your Execution Strategy

The X-Gap must be led. As a teacher leads a classroom and utilizes techniques to help students improve retention, a leader should utilize techniques like the X-Gap to improve execution.

To read the full article: The X-Gap: Closing the Execution Gap (165 downloads)


Will Duke is Afterburner’s Director of Learning and Development. His duties include coordination of the development of intellectual property, training programs, and educational materials. He also serves as a consultant to process and continuous improvement management programs. With Co-author James “Murph” Murphy, he wrote the 2010 release “The Flawless Execution Field Manual. Duke currently serves as a senior Human Resources Officer in the in the U.S. Navy Reserve and has held numerous command and positions throughout his career.