Jim Collins – Great by Choice
This is my paraphrase/summary of Jim Collins’ excellent message on his latest book, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All.
Why do some enterprises thrive in uncertainty and chaos and others do not? Why do some leaders prevail in the most difficult circumstances, while other leaders fail to achieve greatness, or maybe even fail outright, in those same circumstances?
We have captured the differences in a triangle. At the center is that they are Level 5 Leaders. What separates an exceptional leader from an ordinary leader is not personality, but humility. Combined with will. We have spoken about this before. Acknowledging that this is the center, I want to focus on what else you need. There are three distinctive leadership behaviors that sit on top of that:
- Fanatic discipline
- Empirical creativity
- Productive paranoia
How do you exert control in a world of chaos? Imagine you are marching across the country. Some march only on the days when the wind is at their back. Others do 20 miles every day, no matter what, no matter how they feel or what the conditions are.
Fanatic discipline also means not stretching too far, not leaving yourself exposed when unforeseen things hit you.
All of our 10X companies had a standard of performance to hit and marching philosophy they would hold to even in the harshest conditions.
If you were to read just one chapter in his new book, he says it should be the chapter “The 20 Mile March.”
You have to manage yourself well in good times so you can do well in bad.
The 20 mile march is all about consecutive performance. Hit your mark not as an average, but as consistent, consecutive performance.
The biggest levers of change in the world are those who are enormously consistent in their approach.
The signature of mediocrity is not an unwillingness to change (though you will fall if you are unwilling to change). The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency.
Still, discipline alone is not enough. We must also create. We must find new ways of doing things. We must make big creative bets and do new things.
How do the 10Xers create different from those who are mediocre?
You bet on something you know is going to work. Validate things based on reality. We came to call this “fire bullets, then fire cannonballs.” If you fire a cannonball first, and it misses, you are out of gunpowder. But if you fire bullets first, refine your line of site, and then fire a cannonball, you will hit your target.
Comparison leaders didn’t fire enough bullets — enough little things — to identify what will really work. Had a tremendous penchant for firing big, uncalibrated cannonballs.
At critical junctures in its history, Intel did not have the most innovative chip. But Intel beat it’s industry by a factor of 46. I’m not saying stop innovating. It’s a genius of the and. What these folks have is the ability to blend creativity and discipline. And it turns out creativity is not the hard thing.
Creativity is natural. Discipline is not. The challenge is not how to become creative, but how to get rid of the stuff that’s in the way of your creativity.
The really rare skill is the ability to marry creativity to discipline such that discipline amplifies your creativity rather than kills it. And how do you do that? 20 mile march and firing bullets, then cannonballs.
Be optimistic, and realize the world is full of danger. Take that paranoia and turn it in to buffer. It is what you do before you are in trouble, before difficult times come, that determines how strong you are when people most need you.
If you are only strong when conditions are good, that is called malpractice.
You have to keep yourself strong so when people need you, you are there.
The SMaC Recipe
Every company had a set of concrete practices they implemented consistently. Never forget Burlanmanson’s Law: “The greatest danger is not failure, but being successful without realizing why you were successful.”
You have the discipline to follow your practices, the productive paranoia to always be evaluating to make sure they are still working, and change things — but only based on empirical evidence of what works.
Always remember to preserve the core and stimulate progress. If you lose your values, you lose everything. But you must distinguish practices from values. Practices you need to change and develop. Your values should never change.
I’d like each of you to think of an event that hit you or your church or enterprise that meets three tests:
- You didn’t cause it
- It had a potentially significant consequence (good or bad)
- It was in some way a surprise
This is, of course, life. As a leader, how well did you perform in the face of that event? Would you give yourself an A? a B? a C?
What is the role of luck? Is the difference between 2X companies and 10X companies luck?
I realize the concept of luck may not resonate in the faith world! Stick with me for a sec here, though. Translating this to the faith world: the key is to see luck as a specific event that meets three tests — the three tests above. “When I was working on the research I had a conversation with Bill Hybels, and he said, ‘you know, Jim, not to upset your research, but did you realize your definition also applies to a miracle?’”
We asked two key questions: Are the 10X winners the recipients of luck? And second, what if anything did they do differently about it. What we found, using secular language, was that the great leaders were not luckier. Didn’t have better spikes, better timing. We asked the question, though, what was their return on luck? The question is not whether you get those events, but what you do with them when they come. The underperforming companies had an amazing tendency to squander them.
For example, Bill Grates was in a great position in the 70s. But weren’t many others also in those conditions? But who dropped out of college, worked 20 hours a day, and got the first PC out? That’s the return on “luck.” Thousands could have. He did.
The comparison companies had an amazing opportunity to fail to recognize and squander the good opportunities, and to be unprepared for the bad ones.
My wife had cancer ten years ago. You can’t say in the end “cancer is good.” But out of that experience we came away with a life mantra: “Life is people, and time with people you love.” And the more we began to try to remember and live idea, that life is about love and people, time with people you love, we got a high return on what was undeniably a bad event. It was a defining event that made us better. That’s what these leaders do.
You can replace the world luck with miracle, good event, bad event. What we find is that it’s this genius of the and. You pursue what you want to get done, AND when the big unexpected events happen, you ask “what is my responsibility to get the very most of this unexepcted event?”
When the leader steps up and makes the most of it, rather than squandering it, that is a very special brand of leadership. How to use a bad event as a defining moment, that forever transforms things.
If you were granted a miracle, or a blessed event, would it not be the height of your responsibility not to squander it? [Compare Ephesians 5:15-17: "make the most of the time"]
Are our lives mainly a result of what we do, or what happens to us?
It’s not what happens to you. It’s the things you do. We are always finding pairs of companies in the same circumstances, where one excels and the other falls. The great challenge is to accept, from all our research, that greatness is not a function of circumstance, but is first and foremost a function of conscious choice and discipline.
At the end of the day, what is a great enterprise? All that we’ve talked about before from Good to Great and Built to Last still applies. What’s new?
A great organization is:
- Superior performance. “Good intentions are not an excuse for incompetence.”
- Distinctive impact. Who would really miss you if you went away and why? That’s your distinctive impact. You don’t have to be big to be irreplaceable.
- Lasting endurance.
An organization is not truly great if it cannot be great without you. And if it cannot be great through shocks and storms and upheaval. These times we are going through right now are a call to lead at a higher level so people are there when they need you. They are counting on you to be there.
“Bill Hybels has always extended to me a hand of friendship and character. He has always made me feel welcome. There may be no better definition of great friendship, than to be always here for you so that you are never alone. That is what great friends are, no matter what and always. In that spirit, I extend a great thank you to Bill Hybels and to all of you. I hope each of you will connect somewhere in your life to be part of building something enduring and great. Perhaps in your church life or business life or non-profit or even a class you teach, or even building an enduring great family, or being an enduring great friend. But getting involved in something you care so much about that you want to make it the greatest it can possibly be, not because of what you can get but because it must be done, is something we all need to do. It is impossible to have a great life without having a meaningful life, and it is impossible to have a meaningful life without having meaningful work, doing it with people you love doing it with.”