There are certain times in life where you wonder what became of the teenager who only cared about wearing in-brand jeans and sporting the latest hotrod car to take your date to homecoming. You know, the young buck or buckette who would suffer a severe case of eye glaze at the mere mention of a 401k, deductible, or triglyceride count. That time, incidentally, usually happens when one finds oneself completely geeking out over the prospect of hearing the world’s foremost expert on business and management process improvement methodology.
And yet, that’s where I found myself this morning, getting ready in near-record time (and my wife, bless her, accommodating me) in hopes of getting a seat in the first few rows. Would the content have changed any if I had to sit in the 40th or 50th row for the keynote? Probably not, but this morning, it was different. Because, you see, I have come to the realization that I am a Jim Collins Fanboy.
I approached Tuesday’s opening session with a passion normally reserved for the baseball diamond, football field, or hockey rink. And, while my inner attitudinal teenager chafed at the prospect, I took in a session featuring the guy whose philosophies have completely changed the way I approach my career and daily life alike.
Good to Great (with the possible exception of Daniel Pink’s Whole New Mind) was, for me, one of those seminal works which revolutionized the way I saw my profession. Part of that was due to the terrific imagery of a flywheel, a bus, or a hedgehog. But it was also because I saw the very best in our profession espousing these same concepts. It is the difference between understanding a given concept, and recognizing it as it occurs.
Most recently, as President of the Urban Management Assistants of North Texas (www.umant.com #shamelessplug1), I found a deep sustaining comfort in the assurance that good business practices would ultimately be a value-add for my organization, even if the growth was imperceptible at first. Recognizing the flywheel, even as my officers and I turned it, was a signpost for me that I was, in fact, on the right path.
Skimming through the first few chapters of Great by Choice was, in perfect honesty, a little disconcerting. Good to Great was largely an uplifting work, laying out a roadmap that anyone could use to take their organization to that next level. It espoused a sense of positivity that was infectious. Great by Choice seemed to be, at first blush, a bit more troubling. After all, what manager is thrilled by the prospect of tackling “uncertainty, chaos, and luck?” By Mr. Collin’s own definition, these are things beyond the manager’s control. For our problem solving profession, the prospect of our own Kobayashi Maru is disconcerting, at best.
But, as I heard him talk this morning, I slowly came to the realization that Great by Choice has perhaps the most uplifting message of all. In his own words, uncertainty, chaos, and (bad) luck happen to all of us – the real question is how to we react to it. How do we best maximize the returns on our good luck, and how do we take the worst that life deals us and find a way to leverage bad luck into an advantage?
Making lemonade out of lemons is an adage that we’ve all heard since childhood, but hearing Mr. Collin’s empirical approach bear that out was pretty amazing. It lent credence to the philosophy that we are, in fact, in control of our lives, our organizations, and that we affect life as much or more than it affects us.
To explore his concept of Fanatic Discipline, Mr. Collins employs the imagery of the 20-mile march. At the risk of oversimplification, the 20-mile march describes the need to set a goal which you will achieve with complete certainty, day in and day out, in pursuit of your ultimate objective. It clearly has applications in the strategic level; determining whether an organization is over or under-leveraged in a 5, 10, or 15 year planning horizon. However, I didn’t know if this analogy extended to the tactical-operational level. For example, if you had 9 hours worth of work to do in a day, and you managed to get it done in 5, what should you do with the remaining hours? Furthermore, how would you deal the burnout of maintaining the metronome-like pace of 20 miles per day?
In this afternoon’s session, I had the chance to ask Mr. Collins his thoughts. And, as I privately suspected, I had missed the point altogether.
In the beginning of chapter 3 of Great by Choice, Mr. Collins leads with this quote: “Freely chosen, discipline is absolute freedom.” Just think about that for a moment. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to be on a winning team of any kind, this really resonates with you. If you’re winning, do you feel the pain or fatigue? Or does the heady joy of victory through exertion and discipline shutter those other feelings out?
This morning, Mr. Collins was kind enough to tip his cap to managers who work in a democratic environment. (And, by democratic, we of course mean chronically and frustratingly inconsistent and chaotic) But I think the greater message here was that the most successful of us were able to accomplish great things in spite of (and perhaps because of) the chaos through our own actions. It is the message that, at the end of the day, we are in control of our own destinies.
We are, in essence, great by choice, not by luck. #shamelessplug2
And, through our own actions, through our own fanatic discipline, productive paranoia, and empirical creativity, we ensure that our communities continue to grow and prosper. We promote the very highest levels of service, professional integrity, and ingenuity. And, in the end, for all of our citizens, ensure that life is, in fact, well run. #shamelessplug3
See everyone in Boston in 2013!!!