chefI’m over it now, but I got a little addicted to the Food Network TV show, Chopped. Among the many things I learned from watching (how to cook with galangal, never put cheese on fish, and French toast is not a desert), I learned the importance of execution. Some of the most skilled and creative chefs lost on the basis of what the judges called “execution.”

Last week, I was coaching a therapist who was having trouble working with a client. His understanding and analysis of the person’s process seemed very sound, as did his methods. But he just couldn’t get through. He couldn’t seem to execute. We had a very interesting discussion about execution, about the funny things that happen between knowing and doing, between theory and application.

Execution seems to be the black box when it comes to learning. You can test for knowledge and skills. You can test for potential. But whether or if someone can execute new learning, can actually do what they know, at the time and place they need to do it, is beyond our ability to predict and control. I think this must be what makes sports so popular. Even the greatest teams or greatest athletes cannot predict their execution. There’s always that chance that the underdog will have its day because the best team just couldn’t bring it.

And this got me thinking, what is execution? Why don’t knowledge and skill always translate into doing?

It has a lot to do with the infinitely variable world in which we live. Knowledge and skills live in the abstract. But when it comes time to doing, to executing our knowledge, we have to apply it in a messy real world. Each situation is different. The personalities we work with change,  as do the cultures within which we work, whether an individual, organization, country, or group. We have good days and bad. We’re emotional in unpredictable ways. And so are our clients. Topics and issues can blindside us. Sometimes we have to collaborate with others with whom we have never worked before. The list goes on. The infinite variables we have to navigate within makes our work challenging, and, in my mind, creative.

But how do we become better at execution? What helps us navigate those messy variables? There are three main attitudes and practices which I have found helpful.  

  1. Create your own Wanderjahre. In the European tradition, after finishing the formal apprenticeship, the young craftsmen-in-training traveled from place to place, practicing his trade and learning how it was done in different parts of the country, and under different masters. In Germany it’s called the Wanderjahre. Learning happens once you leave the classroom, and is not complete until you have practiced your new trade in diverse situations. This part of the study is where you really find out whether you have learned anything at all. Can you use your knowledge and skills with anyone, anywhere, in different contexts? There is just no substitute for practicing your skills under different settings, in different contexts, with different people and conditions. This is the 10,000 hours Gladwell spoke about. But it won’t happen automatically. You need to deliberately switch up the conditions and contexts within which you work. Ten thousand hours with the same problem, client, culture, or context won’t give you that same ability to execute across variable contexts with ease.
  2. Ski the snow. When I first moved to Oregon from Switzerland, I got into telemark skiing. One day I was skiing with a very experienced skier, an instructor at a ski resort, who did it all: alpine, telemark, deep powder skiing, touring, backcountry, cross country, everything. I asked him which kind of skiing he liked best, and he said, “I ski the snow.” The snow conditions determined his ski technique. To be good at execution, put knowledge, skills, and techniques aside, and follow what’s happening. Ski the snow. Do what the situation requires. Let go of method and theory, and let the situation dictate the skills you need right then. 
  3. Think like a dog trainer. My partner is a dog behavioral consultant, and though she’s called in to work with a dog, her client is ultimately the dog owner. She knows what to do with the dog, but that’s not her task. That would be easy. Her task is to help the people do that thing with the dog. And it’s not as simple as just explaining it. She has to adjust the solution to the people’s lifestyle, motivation, and capacity. The same holds true if you’re a coach, facilitator, therapist, or educator. There’s the “problem” we’re hired to solve, and then there’s the person with the problem. Our client is both the problem and the person, but sometimes, in the pressure to get something done, we miss our client. It’s easy to get absorbed by the problem the client describes, and its solution. Yet at the end of the day, the client has to take over the solution. Our work is not just having a solution, but getting the client to have the solution and be able to do it. Unless we engage with them, and adjust what we do to their lifestyle, motivation, capacity, and what I call their “operating system,” or way of thinking and approaching the problem, then the problem isn’t solved. To make a solution work, the client, whether person, organization, or team, has to understand it, engage with it, and relate to it as if it were their own

What would you add to this list? What helps you with that gap between knowing and doing?