Tuesday, October 25, 2011

It Is Time To Do Some Good Reading - Great By Choice

My father’s father was an early supporter of scouting. My father was an Eagle Scout and later the Scout Master of our local Boy Scout troop. My older brother was an Eagle Scout. So, when I came of age, it was no surprise that I would enter the Boy Scouts and that eventually I would become an Eagle Scout.

But long before I joined the world of scouting, my father taught me one important truth, “Always be prepared.” If you are going on a day hike, bring rain gear, a first aid kit and extra food. If you are going on a trip in the car, have the tools to fix the tire, a first aid kit, extra clothes and extra food. In short, if you are planning for anything, always think through the possible problems that might occur and “always be prepared.” I just thought this was a Dad thing until I entered the world of scouting and learned that is was the Boy Scout motto. This in combination with the Boy Scout slogan, “Do a good turn daily”, were the foundation of my growing up years.

Thus, when I started reading Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen’s latest book called Great By Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck - Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, HarperCollins, 2011, I was not surprised by their comments that instability is chronic in our society, uncertainty is permanent, change is accelerating, and disruption is common. Furthermore, I loved the foundational question of their book, namely “Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not?” As one who was raised to always be prepared, I was tremendously curious to learn what the two of them had discovered.

Working over a nine year period with a team of more than twenty researchers, Collins and Hansen studied companies that rose to greatness - beating their industry indexes by a minimum of ten times over fifteen years - in environments characterized by big forces and rapid shifts that leaders could not predict or control. Like his previous research, this team then contrasted these “10X companies” to a carefully selected set of comparison companies that failed to achieve greatness in similarly extreme environments.

As per usual, the study resulted in all sorts of provocative surprises and unexpected findings. For example, “the best leaders we studied did not have a visionary ability to predict the future. They observed what worked, figured out why it worked, and built upon proven foundations. They were not more risk taking, more bold, more visionary, and more creative than the comparisons. They were more disciplined, more empirical, and more paranoid.” Furthermore, “Innovation by itself turns out not to be the trump card we expected; more important is the ability to scale innovation, to blend creativity with discipline.” At the same time, their research showed that “the idea that leading in a “fast world” always requires “fast decisions” and “fast action” - and that we should embrace an overall ethos of “Fast! Fast! Fast!” - is a good way to get killed. 10X leaders figure out when to go fast, and when not to.” Finally, the 10X companies “changed less in reaction to their changing world than the comparison cases. Just because your environment is rocked by dramatic change does not mean that you should inflict radical change upon yourself.”

For those of you who have read previous material by Jim Collins such as his books, Built To Last, Good To Great, or How The Mighty Fall, you know that his latest book with Morten Hansen will challenge conventional wisdom and deliver some very nice practical concepts. For me, I was particularly impressed with the following three concepts:

- 20 Mile March: “To 20 Mile March requires hitting specified performance markers with great consistency over a long period of time. It requires two distinct types of discomfort, delivering high performance in difficult times and holding back in good times.”

- Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs: “A bullet is a low-cost, low-risk, and low-distraction test or experiment. 10Xers use bullets to empirically validate what will actually work. Based on that empirical validation, they then concentrate their resource to fire a cannonball, enabling large returns from concentrated bets.”

- Zoom Out, Zoom In: “10Xers zoom out, then zoom in..... When they sense danger, they immediately zoom out to consider how quickly a threat is approaching and whether it calls for a change in plans. Then they zoom in, refocusing their energies into executing objectives.”

There are numerous other key concepts in the book which are immensely practical at this time period given all that is happening the world and in this economy. However, the above three, in my opinion, need to be integrated into strategic planning during the next 90 days so more companies will be better prepared for 2012. As Collins and Hansen explain, “... greatness is not primarily a matter of circumstances; greatness is first and foremost a matter of conscious choice and discipline.” As they continue, “... it’s what you do before the storm comes that most determines how well you’ll do when the storm comes. Those who fail to plan and prepare for instability, disruption, and chaos in advance tend to suffer more when their environments shift from stability to turbulence.”

As my father always said, “be prepared.” With the rise of complexity, globalization, and technology, all of which are accelerating change and increase volatility, it is time for leaders and executives to go out and purchase a copy of this book, and then read and discuss it with their senior management teams. Being prepared is no longer a choice; it is a prerequisite to success.

Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257

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