“It’s what you’ve done before the storm comes, that gives you options when the storm comes.”

Driven over three decades to answer one overarching question, “What’s the difference between Good and Great?”, Jim Collins’ work is seminal for any business leader to read, digest, study and apply.

“Good is the enemy of Great,” he states unequivocally. “But why do some companies make the leap to great, while others in the same circumstances, don’t? Why do some companies fall, from great, to good, to mediocre, to irrelevant, to gone while others in the exact same circumstances continue to rise and sustain their momentum? Why do some companies prevail in uncertainty, even chaos…that they can neither predict nor control…while others do not?”

Give it to Collins for his Socratic method. “I believe questions are better than answers,” is his constant refrain. “And the best way I can be of service to you, is to give you questions, not answers.”

I’ve seen Collins speak three times over the past ten year and I always leave inspired and re-energized. I hope his questions fuel your thinking for the second half.

1) Do we have 90% (or more) of the Key (think Critical) Seats on our bus filled with the Right People?

Collins and his team have learned over the years to always start with People.  “If you want to come out of any circumstance, with momentum,” he states, “you have to start with ‘Who’.”  Great Leaders understand that they don’t need to figure out where to drive the bus.  They need to figure out who the right people are and get the bus filled with those people, and then figure out the where.

“If you can’t predict the ‘what’, and I promise you that you can’t,” he adds, “then your ultimate hedge against the uncertainty of what’s coming next is to have the people who can adapt to what is coming.  All we know is that it will be a surprise.”

HINT: This is the time, if you haven’t done so before, to do this evaluation. But be rigorous, not ruthless. 

2) What are our Brutal Facts and how can we do a better job of embracing both sides of the Stockdale Paradox?

James Stockdale, serving as a high ranking officer in the Vietnam War, was held as a prisoner of war for over seven years. While in captivity, he was repeatedly tortured, suffered constantly and had little reason to believe that he would make it out alive. What ultimately saved his life was his ability to process the reality of his situation, confronting the “Brutal Reality”, while balancing that realism with a steadfast faith that he would survive and return home.

Years later, when Collins was doing research for “Good to Great” he had the opportunity to meet with Admiral Stockdale. “When you’re in a situation, where you never know if you’re going to get out, how do you survive?” he asked Stockdale. “How do you live not knowing the end of the story?”  Stockdale told Collins, “I never waivered in my faith, not only that I would get out, but that I would turn [being a Prisoner of War] into the defining moment of my life, that I would not trade.”

This exchange led Collins to ask who struggled the most with the mental burden of imprisonment.  Stockdale replied, “Oh, it’s easy. I can tell you who didn’t make it out.  It was the optimists.” When Collins expressed incredulousness at this answer, Stockdale explained, “The optimists were the ones who always said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ Christmas would come and it would go. And there would be another Christmas. And they died of a broken heart.”

As Collins has shared time and again, most recently in an extremely compelling video he did shortly after the COVID-19 crisis started, “Never confuse the need to confront the brutal facts with the need to unwavering faith, that we can and will prevail in the end.  We need to confront the brutal facts, because if we don’t, they will confront us AND we need to have unwavering faith.  That is the Stockdale Paradox.”

HINT: If you and your team haven’t completed the Stockdale Paradox Exercise to identify and deal with the Brutal Reality of your business situation, check out this helpful exercise from Deb Gabor from my last blog.

3) How, if at all, we should change our flywheel?

The way you build something great is never a single moment, a single reactionary move, or a single acquisition…it’s like pushing a heavy flywheel. You have consistent, disciplined, and intelligent people pushing in the right direction, over a long period of time until you build momentum.

Don’t respond to the COVID-19 situation as a reactionary crisis, respond with your flywheel and if you don’t know your flywheel, spend some time figuring it out. (Check out Collins’ monograph “Turning the Flywheel” with some great examples to learn more.) There are different kinds of flywheels – cost, economies of scale, people, innovation – and you’ve got to choose one before you think about changing it.

HINT: The best flywheels have two sides – the right side (going clockwise) is how they make the world better, how they contribute and make their customers’ lives better.  Then, coming up the other side, it’s about capturing and re-deploying the fuel – resources, profits to drive the next round.

3b) What are the bullets you’re firing to test your flywheel changes?

From the book, “Great by Choice”, Collins and his team recommend small “tests” of a change in direction (bullets) so as to not use up your limited resources (gunpowder) without proper calibration. Then, once you’re calibrated, move to bigger changes and fire your “cannonball”. Changes are great but make them in smaller, calibrated moves. You never want to blow all of your resources on un-calibrated cannonballs.

4) What should be on your STOP doing list?

Before you even consider asking “What should we start doing”? first ask yourself this.

“Right now,” Collins shares, “Is a marvelous time to take a step back, have a rigorous look around and clear away some clutter.”  “Remember, however,” he adds, “what great companies do really well: Preserve the core and stimulate progress. Great leaders understand that your Core Values and Core Purpose should never change.  But they stimulate change, knowing that strategies and practices will change over time.  And they help their teams understand the difference.”

5) How can you help someone else and be of service to others?

It’s what you’ve done to prepare before the storm comes, that gives you options when the storm comes.  Says Collins, “Some of you have extra oxygen.  Others don’t.  My warning? If you get through this, never get caught on the side the mountain without extra oxygen canisters.” If you do have it, whether it’s resources, time, capabilities, money…share it!

And if you’d like any assistance applying these concepts and working through Jim’s questions, reach out or shoot us an email at ckuchler@CEOThinkTank.com. We’d love to help you get back on track and on the road to Scaling Up!


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