Up Your Business is an exclusive GEARS Magazine feature in which I share stories, insights, and reflections about real business and life challenges.
You might think I’ve lost my mind with the title of this article. I hope it caught your attention. After over 25 years of reading and listening to me talk about how to make your business the best it can be, how to differentiate yourself from the competition, and how to take it from good to great, you’re entitled to wonder why I’d make such a seemingly insane statement.
My doctor and my wife assure me that I’m still sane, and I still believe in all the principles that I’ve presented to you over the years. But recently it occurred to me that greatness isn’t a destination… it’s a pursuit that will never and shouldn’t be achieved. Aspire to be great plus one… always looking for one more way to improve.
Sure, you might believe you have a great company — the best in your specialty — but there really isn’t any one group or organization that’s the final authority to determine whether you’re the best or, for that matter, great.
Even if there were such an authority, their opinion would be subject to debate among your peers. For instance, can you recall a time when the Oscar went to a movie or movie star that everyone agreed deserved it?
WHAT ABOUT GOOD TO GREAT?
I know, I know, I pushed the principles of Good to Great by Jim Collins ever since it was published in 2001. But I’m not abandoning them. Let’s review them and then I’ll explain why I’m now singing a song with slightly different lyrics.
In Good to Great, Collins described the extreme lengths he and his team went to in establishing specific criteria for determining how, if, and when a company transitions from good to great.
The team of over 20 researchers studied over 6000 articles, generated more than 2000 pages of interview transcripts, and over 384 megabytes of computer data in a five-year project. Over 1400 top-performing, world-class companies were compared to these criteria and only 11 made the grade. The research results showed that these 11 companies had these seven characteristics in common:
- Level 5 Leadership: Leaders who are humble but driven to do what’s best for the company over self.
- First Who, Then What: Get the right people on the bus (the company), then figure out where to go. Next, find the right seats (positions) for each person.
- Confront the Brutal Facts: Be brutally honest about situations and circumstances but don’t give up hope.
- The Hedgehog Concept: Three overlapping circles that reveal what you’re passionate about, what you do best, and what makes you money. Where the circles overlap is your hedgehog; that’s where you should focus.
- Culture of Discipline: Be willing to eliminate the elements of your company (people, products, process, things, practices, etc.) that are impeding success.
- Technology Accelerators: Use technology to accelerate growth within the three circles of the hedgehog concept.
- The Flywheel Effect: This is the compounding effect of many small initiatives congruently and continuously acting upon each other.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
What I’m about to say isn’t a condemnation of the good-to-great concept. But it does make my point that greatness isn’t a destination.
Here’s what happened to the 11 companies showcased and deemed as good-to-great companies only 10 years after the book was published:
- One went bankrupt.
- One was placed in conservatorship.
- One was purchased.
- Two lost 20% of their stock price.
- Four had no change in their stock price.
- One had a 1% increase in stock price.
- Only one did great, with a 4-fold increase in its stock price.
I’ve concluded that characteristic number seven is the culprit. Collins calls it the The Flywheel Effect: This is the compounding effect of many small initiatives congruently and continuously acting upon each other.
I call it the Keep on Doing Principle. That is, keep on doing the things that make you successful, keep on innovating, and keep on implementing improvements: in short, keep on moving forward. It requires relentlessness, resilience, tenacity, and persistence, but that’s likely what got you where you are in the first place.
Like Collin’s flywheel metaphor, it requires major effort to get started, but once the flywheel is in motion, momentum becomes your ally. With each successive turn, it gets easier to maintain and even increase speed.
But this is where many companies begin to coast and become complacent. They start ignoring the things that got them there, and they cease their continuous pursuit of ways to improve. To sustain greatness, great companies never stop improving.
Continuous incremental improvements over time produce better, longer-lasting, sustainable results than one big change. For example, would you benefit more from doing 100 sit-ups everyday over the next week or from doing 20 sit-ups everyday for the next 35 days? Either way, it’s 700 sit-ups.
Most likely you wouldn’t even do the 100 per day for the entire week because it would be too difficult and painful. On the other hand, there’s a better chance that you’d do 20 a day for 35 days. Plus, after 35 days, you’ll notice a physical improvement, form the habit, and might even keep doing them.
IS IT TIME FOR A GUT CHECK?
Excuse the pun… I couldn’t resist. Borrowing from characteristic number 3 in Collin’s list, Confront the Brutal Facts: Be brutally honest about situations and circumstances but don’t give up hope. It might be time for you and your team to do a gut check. I call it a gut check because to me, it goes deeper than brutal honesty. What you discover will surprise you. Here’s the process:
- Make a list of all the types/ categories of services your company provides.
- Ask yourself these questions about each one:
- How good are we at this?
- Are we staffed and equipped for this?
- Are we profitable at this?
- Does it interfere with other, more profitable services?
- Can we improve on any aspect of providing this service?
- Should we continue doing it?
- Make a list of new services that you could offer or innovative ways you could expand on your current list.
- Ask this similar list of questions about each of these considerations:
- Will we be good at it?
- Are we staffed and equipped to do it?
- Will we be profitable doing it?
- Will it interfere with other profitable services we’re currently doing?
- Will we be better off doing it than not doing it?
- Is it worth the effort and investment to start doing it? Remember the Flywheel Effect.
- After you complete the above steps, make three more lists and place each of the above services on the appropriate list:
- Start Doing list
- Keep Doing list (Include ideas for improvements on this list.)
- Stop Doing list
- Take appropriate action. Just having the list does nothing… it takes action. But, if you did a sincere gut check and are brutally honest, not taking action should make you uncomfortable.
THE KEY POINT
There’s probably one word that describes why 10 of the eleven great companies identified in Good to Great failed to sustain greatness. That word is complacency. Even if your company is performing beyond your wildest expectations, don’t become complacent. Continuously look for ways to improve and take action.
Great companies can’t stand still or rest on their laurels because someone else is in pursuit. Remember one of the most famous slogans in advertising history: “We’re number 2… we try harder.” I don’t even have to mention the company name. By the way, do you remember who was number 1?
One of my favorite quotes comes from Dwight Eisenhower, “Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.”
Don’t aspire to be great; aspire to continually improve. Greatness isn’t a destination; it’s a continuous pursuit. Greatness will occur as a natural consequence of doing the right things, doing them right, and continuously improving.
About the Author
Thom Tschetter has served our industry for nearly four decades as a management and sales educator. He owned a chain of award-winning transmission centers in Washington State for over 25 years.
He calls on over 30 years of experience as a speaker, writer, business consultant, and certified arbitrator for topics for this feature column.
Thom is always eager to help you improve your business and your life. You can contact him by phone at (480) 773-3131 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.