The 12 Week Year

The 12 Week Year

Authored by Brian P. Morna and Michael Lennington Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. © 2013

190 pages

The authors of “The 12 Week Year” and are the CEO and Vice President of The Execution Company. Between the two of them, they have held executive and management positions across UPS, PepsiCo, and Northern Automotive and have helped clients around the globe. Their system, the 12 Week Year, is routed in the observation that for most people and in most organizations, the problem is in the execution and in the application of ideas and not in the ideas themselves.  Too often, when people are not getting the results they desire, they blame their plan.  The reality is that more than 60% of the time the breakdown is in the execution.  Technology has been a great driver of progress.  However, its increased use has driven the natural margin out of our days.  Interruptions and distractions have replaced that margin, leaving no place for the mind to rest.

In our efforts to not miss anything, we unwittingly miss everything. Our attention is spread over various subjects and conversations, and when we strive to do so much, we actually apply very little of ourselves to any individual activity. We feel stressed out, burned out, exhausted, frustrated, and disconnected. In the end, this approach practically guarantees that we will be mediocre by virtue of the fact that nothing gets our full attention, not the important projects, not the important conversations, and not the important people.

– The 12 Week Year, Page 56

The 12 Week Year outlines a system to help us be diligent, purposeful, gatekeepers of our time.  A key tenant is that by reducing the planning cycle to 12 weeks, a premium is placed on time.  A sense of urgency is restored.  Underpinning this system are 3 principles and 5 disciplines that drive effectiveness and success.


  1. Accountability – Accountability is ownership.  It’s the life outlook and a willingness to take responsibility for one’s own actions and results.  To truly be accountable, you need to be willing to take ownership of results regardless of the circumstances.
  2. Commitment – Commitment is accountability projected into the future.  It’s a promise to yourself or others that you will deliver a result.  Keeping promises to yourself builds your character.  Keeping promises to others build trust and is the backbone of relationships.
  3. Greatness in the Moment – This is accountability here and now.  Delivering any substantial result requires sustained action and aligned decisions.  It requires making the decision to do what needs to be done in the present instant.  Stacking a multitude of those instants together lets you deliver results, keep commitments, and achieve greatness.


  1. Vision – Crafting a clear picture of the future and outcome you desire.
  2. Planning – Identifying the strategically important activities, weighing the costs, and deciding when and how to act.
  3. Process Control – The act of aligning your actions to what needs to be done in your plan, regardless of circumstances.
  4. Measurement – The scorecard that anchors execution by highlighting the link between your leading indicators (execution) and your lagging indicators (results).
  5. Time Use – Progress is made in the moment.  Effective execution relies on the intentional use of time.

Growth Concepts

Accountability and Commitments

The first core idea that comes from The 12 Week Year stems from different perspectives of accountability.  While people often use the phrase “hold them accountable,” this misses the point.  Accountability has nothing to do with consequences.  Instead, it is ownership.  It is a specific outlook on life where one chooses to adopt the determination necessary to act and move towards the result, regardless of the circumstances. 

When we make a commitment, we decide to do whatever it takes to deliver an outcome.  Therefore, commitments are accountability projected into the future.  That decision fundamentally moves us from a defensive position to a growth mindset.   When something doesn’t work, we no longer feel the need to defend the action.  Now, it is just something to learn from.  Challenges and obstacles are no longer blockers.  They become opportunities to develop the skills to make delivering the outcome inevitable.

Excuses are cheap.  They can be found anywhere – parents, politicians, taxes, children, schools, bosses, and the weather.  Well, they can be found almost anywhere.  They are found outside of you in the things that you don’t control.  We all tend to look outside of ourselves for the easy quick fix that makes things change and improve.  We find ourselves waiting for the economy to improve, for the boss to create a new vision, for the partner team to accept our priorities.  All that time and energy lost hoping and imaging a world while wishing “what is it was different”. 

To reclaim your power, you need to look within yourself and realize that you can always choose how you respond.  You can only ever influence the outside world.  It’s only your actions, energy, and thoughts that you can control.  Accountability and ownership are not easy and are even uncomfortable, but they are the only path to achieve greatness.

The 12 Week Year provides four ways you can become more accountable:

Resolve never to be the victim again
First notice when you are making excuses and settling for mediocrity.  Take your power back and focus on the things you can control.  Decide on what you will focus on, what energy you will bring, and the actions you will take.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself
It’s ok to be sad when things don’t go your way, just don’t let it turn into self-pity.  Use that feeling of being disappointed as a cue to learn and fuel to act.

Be willing to take different actions
Einstein is often attributed to saying that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If you want to get different results, you need to do something you’re not currently doing.

Associate with the accountable
Jim Rohn says that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.  There are several psychological reasons behind it, but the short answer is that who you surround yourself with matters.  If you want more accountability and ownership in life, avoid the people who choose to be victims.  Surround yourself with people who embrace accountability and take ownership of their lives.

Behavior Change and the Need for Vision

We are all trying to grow and get better, or we wouldn’t be here.  To get better and to get new results, new actions are required.  New actions are unfamiliar and the unfamiliar typically feels uncomfortable and even scary.  The secret of living your life to its potential is to execute what is important over what is comfortable.  You need to embrace and move through the discomfort to grow.  Without a significant reason, old habits die hard.  Without a significant reason, you will fall back on the familiar, known, comfortable behaviors of your past.  

What you need to move through discomfort and get next level results is an emotional connection to a compelling future that is bigger, brighter, and more compelling than your present.  This all-important why behind everything you do is your vision.  It’s the ignition switch and power source of high performers. 

Only dream big dreams, as only big dreams have the power to move one’s soul.    

– Marcus Aurelius

Deeply connecting with your vision helps you override the default decision mode which focuses only on the short term, by letting you “pull forward” your desired results and link them to today’s actions.  That link gives those new behaviors and actions the weight necessary to override your short-term comfort. 

As a leader, vision is one of the best places to engage your team.  But the best place to begin is not with your vision, but instead with the vision of your team or reports.  And, don’t stop at the superficial.  Go deep and dig into why it is important for them, what achieving it enables in their lives, and what level of engagement they currently have with their vision.  Then do the work to show them how it is aligned with and contributes to the larger vision.  This fosters a larger feeling of ownership.  Ultimately, vision creates ownership.

After connecting to vision, behavior change and building habits is a game of building momentum.  When you first start out, momentum works against you, making you feel stuck.  The trick is to shrink change and to rig the game to make it easy to win.  This is done in two ways:

  1. Choose small activities (e.g., 5-minute tasks) that are easy to complete.
  2. Set quick milestones (e.g., complete the small project) that are quickly reachable.

As you shift the magnitude to the small and easy, you become unstuck and start accumulating small wins.  Those little wins build momentum that starts working for you.  Another tool highlighted in the book to help with behavior change is “implementation intentions.”  While it’s a fancy term that psychologists have come up with, it’s nothing more than “if/then” statement that define what action will be taken when a trigger is encountered.  Consciously defining these intentions and writing them down is a remarkably effective way to create new behaviors even in existing environments.  Note, your strategic plan (which we will discuss in the next section) works the same way.  It’s a conscious decision to adopt a new set of behaviors, to produce new results in an existing environment.

Creating a Strategic Plan

Your 12-week plan, or really any strategic plan, is not a glorified to-do list.  Unlike most annual plans, it’s also not a list of outcomes defining what needs to be completed by when without any indication of the activity required or how those outcomes will be delivered.  The 12-week plan relies on the shorter cycle and the reduced uncertainty it brings to focus on strategic activities.  It highlights the critical activity that must get done to achieve your goals.  The shorter cycle also increases the premium of time, helping bring a sense of urgency and helping people to learn to act in the moment – where all futures are created.  This is a consistent theme of the book – linking the outcomes you want to the actions required in the moment.

Building a strategic plan starts with defining the end state, the outcomes and the results that the plan needs to deliver. There are only two types of results to target – realized impact or improved capacity.  Realized impact is any result that is fully delivered in the 12-week period and is often revenue, happiness, or new relationships.  Improved capacity is about the ability to deliver greater results in the future.  For example, it might be learning a new skill, implementing new systems, or anything whose benefits won’t be realized until a future period.  It’s important to define dedicated goals for both types of results.  Note, these goals should be a realistic stretch for you.  If it doesn’t require you to change your behaviors, you’re probably not growing.  If it is too large, you won’t be able to relate to it and you won’t believe it’s possible.

Most people think the next step is to figure out how to do it.  But, if you knew how to achieve a significant new result, wouldn’t you already be living it?  A new and significant objective likely requires you to do things you don’t know how to yet.  That’s perfectly normal.  If you try to answer the question of how to do it right out of the gate, you likely will have no answer.  This will make obtaining the result feel impossible. 

Instead, the right question to ask is “What if?“.  By asking yourself this, you allow yourself to entertain the possibility and the benefits.  To state it more completely, ask yourself “if I were to achieve this objective, what would this mean for me, my team, my clients, my family, my friends, my community?”.  This question allows you to approach the objective from a place of possibility and simultaneously intensifies your desire (your why).  As Tony Robbins says, “If you have a strong enough why, the how takes care of itself.”  As the result feels possible, it’s important not to overcomplicate the planning process.  It’s just two simple activities:

  1. Identifying Obstacles – What are the problems and challenges that will try and stop you from achieving your goal?
  2. Problem Solving – What solutions will you pursue, and what actions will you take to overcome those obstacles?

Ultimately remember, building a strategic plan is just solving the problem of how to close the gap between where you are today and the goal of where you want to be tomorrow.

One last note on strategic plans.  They must be written down.  It’s the first step to keeping score of your execution.  Often, we know what needs to be done.  The problem isn’t the knowing, it’s the doing.  The written plan focuses our efforts, prevents distraction from overwhelming us, and helps us follow through on the actions required to achieve success.

Effectively Allocating Time

Your vision is the embodiment of your desires, painting the picture of your future, but your actions exist today within a moment.  Your strategic plan is the bridge that connects your desired future to what needs to be done today to realize it.  Each day you have the decision either to act and make progress on your vision or to tread to water.  The most common excuse for why people aren’t acting is “they don’t have the time.”    However, everybody on the planet – from the smallest baby to the most powerful CEOs – has the same 24 hours in a day.  So, that can’t be the real problem.  The real problem is how we allocate time and that is the last core idea to cover from the 12 Week Year.

If we take care of the minutes, the years take care of themselves.    

– Benjamin Franklin

There is a Vice President at Microsoft who is fond of telling her leadership team to “manage their minutes.”  Effective execution stems from removing distractions and managing the minutes to make sure the highest priority work gets done.  The highest priority work is the strategic activities that we’ve identified that will have an outsized impact on our lives.  To deliver exceptional results, we need to allocate time to those activities to ensure that they get done. 

Distractions are common, as a study a few years ago by found the average person wastes nearly 25% of every working day.  Even if we found how to reclaim that time, we still can’t do it all.  The 12 Week Year references another study that found that the average professional has about 40 hours of unfinished work on their plate at any given point in time.  Effective execution is effective time allocation.  One tool that the book highlights is time blocking.  It recommends using three types of time blocks:

  1. Strategic Blocks – These blocks are 3-hour chunks of time set aside to do the critical key stone activities identified in your 12-week plan.  During this time, all distractions (phones, emails, etc.) are removed so that the full force of our focus can be applied.  Like the blocks used in Tony Robbins planning system called RPM, you should use the time in this block to tackle the work that will most advance you towards your desired results.  Your week should have at least one of these blocks (and for many people maybe all that is required).
  2. Buffer Blocks – These blocks are shorter chunks of time (typically 30 to 60 minutes) to batch execute all the lower value and unplanned activities of the day (responding to email, voicemail, etc.).  The power of these blocks is to consolidate these tasks so that you can take control of the remainder of your day. 
  3. Breakout Blocks – These are anti-burnout blocks.  They should be at least 3 hours long and should be focused on something other than work.  Effective execution across work and life requires us to recharge our batteries.  These breakout blocks are scheduled time (during normal business hours) to refresh our energy and allow us to come back to our work with more focus and vigor. 

I want to leave you with a parting thought on time.  If you aren’t in control of your time, you aren’t in control of your results.

Measurement and Execution

Rationalization is a common psychological occurrence that we all occasionally indulge in.  It’s a defense mechanism that we use to justify poor results and feelings with seemingly logical reasons and explanations.  When we aren’t getting the results we want, most people blame the plan.  They often change it before they’ve executed it (according to the book more than 60% of the time the breakdown is in execution).  To combat this, you need to be able to differentiate between failure in planning and failure in execution.  Effective measurement (i.e., scorekeeping) is the tool that gives this very insight. 

Effective measurement is a mixture of leading and lagging indicators – which are signals of what is happening in reality.  Measurement typically starts with the results you are trying to achieve, i.e., by defining the lagging indicators (increased revenue, number of new customers, etc.).  They are lagging because they measure a pattern that is already in progress and which can only be known after an event has occurred (completion of a sale, usage of a product, etc.).   We are blind to determining if our actions are yielding desirable results without them.  Leading indicators point to the future and are measurements of activities that produce results (customer interactions, pages written, etc.).  Therefore, the best leading indicators are measures of execution itself.  Without these measures, we are blind to determining if we are acting in accordance with our plan. 

Leading and lagging indicators combine to form a comprehensive feedback loop that gives you the insight to know if you are or how to become effective.  For example, if you aren’t getting the results you want, look at your leading and lagging indicators.  If your leading indicators are strong, it shows that you are executing at a high level but it’s time to change the plan.  However, if your leading indicators are weak, your plan is fine but you have an execution problem.

Measurements need to be data that is used for learning and growth.  The moment measurements are used to trigger negative consequences, the more people will avoid and openly resist them.  But, they are just another form of feedback when they are used correctly.  Measurements help us confront reality and allow us to make informed decisions that drive progress.  As feedback, you want measurements that are more frequent.  Monthly measurements are better than quarterly measurements.  Weekly is better than monthly, and daily is often better than weekly.  The more frequent the measurement, the more frequently you can determine if your actions are productive or not.

A word of warning.  Scorekeeping is uncomfortable.  It removes our ability to delude ourselves and distort reality.  Execution will not be perfect.  There will be good days, and there will be bad.  Strategies will be employed that are ineffective.  It is inevitable that when you keep score, the score will sometimes be less than ideal.  Honestly, that’s what it’s there for.  It’s at the moments when the score is poor that a light gets shined on where to improve.  It’s sad that at these moments many people choose to quit keeping score because they lack the courage to face reality.  Push through the discomfort.  Face the facts.  Follow the insights and adjust your behavior.  It might be uncomfortable, but it’s the fastest path to success.

Authored by Brian P. Morna and Michael Lennington Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. © 2013
190 pages

To dig deeper and learn more, Get the Book!

Leave a Comment