The Key

“One thing you’ll notice if you spend very much time talking with Sam about Wal-Mart’s success. He’s always saying things like ‘This was the key to the whole thing’, or ‘That was our real secret’. He knows as well as anyone that there wasn’t any magic formula. A lot of different things made it work, and in one day’s time he may cite all of them as the ‘key’ or the ‘secret’. What’s amusing is that for almost fifty years he’s managed to focus on all of them at once – all the time. That’s his real secret.” – David Glass, former CEO, Wal-Mart

Hmmm… focusing on all the key elements all the time… sounds like a management system… but I digress…

The quote from David Glass comes from the final chapter of Sam Walton: Made in America, Sam’s autobiography. I don’t read ‘how I did it’ business books, but Sam was so likable, so accessible, so successful, I read his book when it came out in 1992 and thoroughly enjoyed it. What I most remember is Glass poking a little fun at Mr. Sam on this point. We all want to know the magic formula for successful organizations and Glass’ insight is probably the best in that it’s seldom one thing, but a lot of things considered together.

I have come to see two things as being ‘key’ (there, I said it, so go ahead and poke fun at me… but please read on) to creating the conditions for success: Enrollment and Deployment. Everything else flows from there.

Enrollment is perhaps too fancy a term for what we often refer to in other ways: buy-in, or getting everyone on the same page, or sometimes alignment. Enrollment means more. It’s having everyone committed to the same things so powerfully that if any one of those things isn’t happening, it becomes a breakdown for all. Having everyone enrolled means that you tap the full capabilities of every person and not just a few at the top. Buy-in often manifests as sincerity or compliance, not powerful commitment. Enrollment is more important than loyalty, which implies blind obedience without engaging everyone’s full energy. Enrollment results not in getting people to do what needs to be done but getting people to want what needs to be done. I learned that lesson from Michael Hammer, but I found out that Dwight Eisenhower raised the point far earlier.

Deployment means action, putting into practice what you said you were going to do. It’s wonderful to have great ideas, but as Drucker said, they are meaningless until it all degenerates into work. Work isn’t as easy to define today when so much of what we do is based on ideas more than manual labor. Knowledge work must be every bit as disciplined as physical work or it tends to manifest as groups of people talking past each other, an indication of an imbalance of much more talking than listening. Ground rules can be just as important (or more so) than process instructions to foster autonomy and creativity on the way to producing intended results. Deployment is about putting sound ideas into practice, about walking-the-talk.

Management has many responsibilities, but creating the conditions of success is prime among them. Enrollment and deployment are the foundations of achieving that goal. How does it work in your organization?