Good to Great Throughout the Ages

If we pass the bright light of G2G through the prism of epic mythology, what will project onto the opposite wall?

Before we begin, let me state why I think this is a pertinent question. In researching G2G, Collins and Co. looked at the performance of hundreds of companies over the past few decades and found 11 that went from middle-of-the-pack, living-a-quiet-life-in-suburbia performance to vastly outperforming their peers. And not some Buster Douglas / Starland Vocal Band one-shot performance, but sustained, consistent, unrivaled growth.

But not unparalleled (though very elite company).

And not unprecedented.

Throughout history, societies have developed tales of epic adventure to teach and inspire virtue and greatness among their peoples. Like the stories of the G2G companies, these tales begin with characters living normal, unremarkable lives in safe, well-defined comfort zones. Then, unexpectedly, the comfort zone is destroyed, usually by the intrusion of actors in a larger conflict. One of these actors (the mentor) reveals the nature of this larger conflict to the would-be heroes, and recruits them to play a pivotal role in resolving the conflict.

The initial reaction to this request is usually a combination of disbelief, denial, and refusal to participate in the larger conflict. But the mentor eventually succeeds in convincing the characters to pursue the fantastic quest. The heros then embark, with help and guidance of the mentor, on a series of challenges and encounters with allies and enemies. Through this process the heros are transformed in ways that neither they nor their old acquaintances would ever have imagined - and achieve lasting greatness.

So how do the old good to great stories relate to the new ones? Two ideas suggest themselves to me.

First, the parallels between the role of the Mentor in mythology and the Level 5 Leader in G2G. One of the most surprising findings in G2G was the necessity of a selfless but driven leader who was focused on building something beyond their own success. Collins himself didn't suspect it, but it makes sense in light of mythology, because all heroes need a guide/counselor who keeps their eyes on the prize while making sure everyone else does the same. Someone more interested in the achievement of the group than their own accolades, and someone that can help smooth over the eventual differences between team members. And while there aren't many stories of CEOs sacrificing themselves to further the G2G quest, they all labored to insure that the quest would succeed beyond their participation.

The second idea is related to the "right people in the right seats" aspect. While heroes are often reluctant to participate in the quest, members of the group all eventually internalize and are driven by it. Those who do not often end up dead or part of the villain squad.

Another key characteristic of enduring members of the quest team is a commitment to each other. This bond often formed between members of non-allied groups; individuals willing to look past their natural prejudices in support of the cause. This isn't to say that team members were in perfect harmony. The groups had members with a range of skills to handle a range of challenges, and so they often differed in approach. The key to success is that once the group decided on a course of action the individuals all stuck to it. These characteristics took form throughout the course of the quest, often under the guidance of the mentor.

One question people have about G2G is: how many people need to be in the right seats? Is it everyone? Only the top level of management?

After several fruitless hours of overanalyzing the issue, giving up in despair, and sleeping on it, the answer seems to be:

Everybody who's going to be watching someone's back when you encounter that first pants-wetting scene from your worst nightmare.

In business, we rarely have to deal with giant, one-eyed cannibals or skeleton armies (I'm speaking literally here), but the G2G leaders knew they were going to ask their people to do the seemingly impossible. And that the "people on the bus" characteristics listed above are just as necessary to conquer figurative demons as literal ones. In business, surrounded by rented plants and wielding nothing but cellphones, it is easy to forget that we are asking our people to make the same mental exertions as crossing the River Styx. It is easy to fall into the trap of "Human Resources" and hiring by keywords on resumes, but Collins’ research says that it is a fatal mistake - a step into the best practice quicksand of good.

This idea further reinforces my conviction regarding the CEO-as-mentor analogy. Selecting the right team BEFORE embarking on a stroll to Mount Doom is obvious. Doing the same before mounting a campaign to transform your business is not as obvious, but is no less important. In the modern business world, the CEO needs to focus on the mentor role because it's easy for all of us to forget we're on a quest when we still go home and sleep in our own beds at night.

I can't seem to find the right words to emphasize the importance of this point. In a way, the mythical mentor has it easier than the CEO. The physical presence of lethal enemies helps focus the attention of the quest team in a way that Excel spreadsheets and investment analysts never will. A CEO, or anyone wanting to lead a G2G transformation, needs to understand the importance of filling this focus gap before beginning the journey.

Which brings us back to the issue of how many “right people in the right seats” is enough to start the journey. Given the discussion of the last couple of paragraphs, what do you think?

My take is this: we need enough 'right people' to ensure that every person involved in our customer value chains will meet the challenge when asked to do the seemingly impossible. In some areas, this may mean that we need every single person to share all three characteristics. Key customer-facing areas such as sales come to mind. In other areas, where processes will change over time but are repeatable, perhaps a 'right person' supervisor will be sufficient to start. Since the CEO mentor can't be everywhere at once, enough 'right people' proxies need to be in place to preserve the spirit and progress of the quest.

I went to the bookshelf and pulled down G2G, and began reviewing the key tenets. Suddenly, both the content and the order made perfect sense!

Level 5 leadership is first, because without a dedicated/committed guide and mentor, no organization can be transformed. If you're not convinced, you haven't internalized the previous material. Go back and read it again.

No, really. Still having doubts? Go back; you're wasting your time reading the rest of this.

Next comes "First Who, Then What". Again, we've already covered this, but now we ask 'why is this SO significant'? Hint: the next component of G2G is "Confront the Truth".

In any organization there are two kinds of truth (sometimes more; we simplify for narrative's sake): official truth and ground truth (h/t Susan Scott). Official truth is the story bought and paid for by your CEO and cronies; the one they put in their biographies and the one they want to see in Forbes/Business Week. Ground truth is the one told by old hands to new staffers at the water cooler; the one that guides real corporate survival. These truths often bear no resemblance to each other. When you see these truths mismatched, short the company's stock. Of course, you may not have enough money to cover all of your newfound opportunities!

Aligning official and ground truths is very, Very, VERY hard to do. That's why it's one of the G2G differentiators. And it's completely impossible unless all key members of staff and management TRUST each other. And this won't happen unless we've got the right people in the right seats as described in the previous post. Without that level of trust, the quest team (and subordinates, colleagues, customers, and interested parties) will never be able to accurately judge the gap between good and great and build a realistic roadmap to greatness.

Then comes the execution portion of G2G, the all-important Hedgehog concept. Collins states unequivocally that there is no greatness without a hedgehog focus. Why is finding the hedgehog so important?

In two words: Organizational Flow

In the early 90's a fellow named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced the term flow to describe a state of optimal performance. His research team had interviewed people from all walks of life and discovered that regardless of the circumstances and context (work or play, complex or simple activity), people experiencing flow shared 8 characteristics:

  1. A clear understanding of goals/objectives
  2. Immediate feedback on performance/progress
  3. Skills matched to the task/opponent
  4. Attention concentrated on the task
  5. Operating here and now in the moment
  6. Not afraid of losing control
  7. Unconcerned with outward appearance
  8. Distortion of time

Every reader of this post has experienced flow in your life. Think back to one of those experiences. Does the list ring true to you?

Stop now and put yourself back in that moment. Remember how connected every fiber of your being felt. Remember the sense of mastery. Remember how it felt to easily do things you didn't know you could do.

Was your memory of an individual flow experience or a team experience? Focus now on a team experience. Remember how your teammates acted in extension of your own thoughts - that you were all one. Remember the feeling of invincibility?

Was that team flow memory a business experience? If yes, did you need an alarm clock to wake you up the next day? I didn't think so.

If you are a CEO, how much would you pay to make all of your employees feel that flow?

It'll cost you exactly ONE hedgehog.

In G2G Collins makes a very big deal about the hedgehog concept, but I - along with most people I discussed the book with - didn't understand why it was so important. Or why we couldn't find it until we had Level 5 leadership and the right people in the right seats. But if you can actually recall a team flow experience, it all makes perfect sense.

The Hedgehog Concept:

  • What can we be the best in the world at?
  • What are we passionate about?
  • What drives our economic engine?

There are only three bullets to the Hedgehog, and eight to flow, but the alignment resonates deafeningly.

What can we be the best in the world at? Implies we have skills and the ability to improve enough to be the best. Which of the eight points of flow do you think this addresses?

I'll wait for you to think about it; it'll be the best thought investment you've ever made.

I think that the question: What are we passionate about? defines the universe of what we can do more than the previous question. The question "what can we be the best in the world at" doesn't get people out of the bed in the morning.

But what if you knew you were going to spend your workday in flow? Would you need an alarm clock? I doubt it.

The hedgehog drives organizational flow, because:

  1. Passion creates focus and desire to focus (1,2,5,7)
  2. A clear goal and understanding of our economic engine sharpens our focus (1,2,3,4)
  3. An understanding of what we can be the best in the world at makes us define our goals (1,2,4) and gives us immediate feedback on how we are doing.

The hedgehog makes group (and individual) flow possible in the company context. Think back to your individual flow experiences. How powerful were they? Now multiply that by the number of people in your company. How powerful would that be?

It would be powerful enough to jump the gap from good to Great.

Go ahead. Fly your hedgehog kite. Catch lightening in a bottle.

Or singe your hair trying. It's a win either way.

posted by Mike at 9:22 PM


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