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The Unsexy Power of Discipline

By Patrick Lencioni

Consultants often get so caught up in bringing the latest tools and trends to their clients that they lose sight of the most important service of all: staying on top of those clients to have the discipline to do simple but important things on a regular basis.

There is nothing particularly sexy or noteworthy about this kind of discipline, and yet it is usually what separates the best companies and leaders from the others. Unfortunately, few magazines or blogs generate a lot of new readers by writing stories about discipline. “Fred Jones is a CEO who does simple things that we all know we should do, and he does them every day, again and again. Let’s meet him up close and personal.” Who wants to read that story?

When it comes to the simple practice of organizational health, discipline is particularly important. Let me use an example of one extraordinarily simple and impactful practice that so many teams struggle to do because they lack discipline. It’s called cascading communication, and I’m almost embarrassed to describe it because it’s so simple. Here’s how it works.

At the end of every executive team meeting, before everyone starts to gather up their things to leave, the leader (or the consultant) needs to stop and make the team collectively answer the following two questions: 1) What did we just agree on during this meeting? 2) What should we all go back and communicate to our direct reports during the next 24 hours? Once the team agrees on what they’ve agreed to, they tell their direct reports, and then they have them tell their direct reports.

Yes, that’s it. It’s ridiculously simple. It’s completely free of charge. It’s indispensable. And for some reason, many leadership teams simply don’t do it. Instead, they assume that everyone is on the same page, and that they’ll be timely and thorough in their communication to their subordinates. What happens?

Inevitably, people throughout the organization get different messages from their leaders, and some get none at all. Some leaders communicate what they thought they heard. Others only communicate what they think is relevant to their people. In the end, employees are left to choose between a variety of reasons for the confusion. Either executives are lazy in their communication, or they have poor memories, or they don’t agree with one another and aren’t on the same page. Guess which one employees usually choose? The most negative one. “There is no way that intelligent executives would be so inconsistent and so confusing if they didn’t mean to be. They must not be getting along.” And a culture of distrust, suspicion and silos sets in.

All of this, and so many other problems in organizations, could be avoided if leaders had the discipline to embrace and stick with simple behaviors and habits. And there is no one better positioned to help them do that than a consultant, someone who has little to lose and much to gain by holding a client accountable.

So why do we, as consultants, fail to do this? First, we too get caught up in the latest concepts and fads, wanting to talk about ideas that are interesting and innovative. Second, we assume that intelligent executives don’t need to be reminded, again and again, to do simple things. Third, we fear that our clients are going to grow weary of us harping on them about something so basic.

And that’s exactly why we have to do it anyway. As Samuel Johnson once said, “people need to be reminded more than they need to be instructed.” Our clients are no different. Neither are we, as consultants. We are all easily distracted by new ideas and trends, and so we all need to be reminded, again and again, about the importance of embracing discipline and simplicity in our work.