The Fine Art of GSD: How to Get Stuff Done in a Large Organization

Posted 05.16.2011

Rosieriveter One of the highest compliments that can be paid in our house is that someone “GSDs.” While we have a somewhat colorful definition of what GSD means, the polite way to explain it is that it stands for Gets Stuff Done.

When you think about it, getting stuff done is a big part of life. One of the reasons that a lot of leaders and would be leaders are frustrated with their organizations is that it’s hard to get stuff done. Go up against the immovable object too many times and you eventually quit trying. It’s what Martin Seligman, the founding father of the positive psychology movement, calls learned helplessness.

I see this a lot in my coaching work. Even very senior leaders end up talking about “they” – as in “They will never let us do that.”  I recently worked with the senior leadership team and some high potential leaders of a client company to identify ways they could streamline their operations to scale their growing business. Prior to the meeting, three areas of opportunities were identified.  We brainstormed potential solutions for each opportunity and sorted those out using the criteria of degree of difficulty and likelihood of making a difference. There were a number of ideas that were deemed very likely to make a difference but relatively difficult to do. Almost all of those ideas required influencing or convincing “them” (in this case, staff at the corporate headquarters) to do something different. Just a few months later, I’m happy to see my client leaders using their influencing skills to encourage their corporate counterparts to make changes. They’re getting stuff done.

Someone else who has figured out how to get stuff done is a manager at Pfizer named Jordan Cohen. As recently reported in the Financial Times, Cohen successfully convinced the senior leaders at his company to adopt an initiative he dreamed up called PfizerWorks. Like a lot of people at his level, Cohen noticed that he was spending a good part of his time on low-value-added work like compiling spreadsheets or tweaking PowerPoint decks. His big idea was to build a network of low-cost suppliers to do that work instead so the managers and leaders at Pfizer could spend more time doing the things that only they could do. In the first year of his program, 60,000 hours of employee time were freed up for higher value work.

How did he do it? The FT article provides some answers. Here’s my quick hit list for Getting Stuff Done based on what Cohen did and my own experience in working with clients who know how to do it:

  1. Come up with a clear statement of the problem or the opportunity.
  2. Document the impact of the problem through small trials that are representative of the bigger picture.  You’ll need data to convince “them” that the problem is worth dealing with.
  3. Recruit some credible colleagues to run some small trials of your solution.
  4. Present the results of those trials to someone with the  authority to put a little money behind the next round of trials.
  5. Expand your test bed by bringing in some other experimenters.  Be thoughtful in who you recruit.  You want to get a good mix of the different functions and geographies in the organization.  You also want people who have their own networks.  That will make it easier to expand your idea quickly.
  6. Pay attention to what’s going on with the experiments.  Identify what’s working and make quick adjustments for the things that aren’t working.
  7. Summarize your results and the impact.  Show what the return on investment would be in further implementation of your solution.
  8. Share credit.  It takes more than one person to really get stuff done.

What about you? What are your best tips for getting stuff done in a large organization?