Collins begins by introducing the symbol of the flywheel, a heavy metal disk that must be pushed slowly and steadily, over and over, before it eventually builds up the momentum to race forward under the force of its own weight. Though the results are remarkable, it’s impossible to say which small push was the one that caused the momentum; rather, the combination of all the little actions is the key factor. Collins states that this process of “buildup and breakthrough” appears in the transformations of each of the good-to-great companies.
The flywheel is a coherent symbol that encapsulates many of the good-to-great themes within one unified model. The flywheel’s gradual momentum captures the need for consistent, focused effort, while the simplicity of its motion highlights the power of any person’s methodical contribution. It also offers a kind of duality, in which the weight that makes the flywheel difficult to move also gives it momentum at the point of breakthrough.
Even though the good-to-great transformations all occurred through the gradual effort of the flywheel model, serious media coverage of the companies’ success usually did not begin until the flywheel was already moving fast. Collins notes that public perception of companies’ transitions to greatness is skewed accordingly; these changes seem dramatic and fast from the outside, when actually they occur through gradual, mundane effort. For example, Circuit City was described in the media as an overnight success, when it fact its transition had been underway for over a decade.
This note about the disparity between inside experiences of turning the flywheel and outside perceptions of its momentum highlights the mundanity within every seemingly remarkable achievement. Here Collins suggests that readers would do well to ignore stories of miraculous transformations; the research shows that miracles are not necessary for greatness to occur.
Collins describes how he and his team tried repeatedly to find “the one big thing” that defined good-to-great companies’ moments of breakthrough. However, their interviews always indicated that progress was incremental and cumulative, without a single moment or event that indicated breakthrough. Accordingly, good-to-great executives never had names, taglines, or launch events for their transformations. These changes simply happened through consistent effort, without fanfare. Even when the companies’ short-term circumstances were dire, they became great by focusing on the long-term picture and acting accordingly.
The flywheel serves here as a way to connect the theme of consistent focus with the theme of duality. Even under dire circumstances, the good-to-great companies persisted in turning their heavy flywheels, enacting a form of the Stockdale Paradox and showing how hope and realism can coexist in the real world.
The slow buildup of momentum and the small, tangible results that it creates often lead to what Collins calls “the flywheel effect.” Feeling the increasing momentum leads to excitement and enthusiasm from both internal employees and outside investors. With the flywheel in motion and the right people in place, motivation and commitment occur naturally, without being forced by management. Instead of setting grand goals, the good-to-great companies created enthusiasm using the steady gains of the flywheel.
The flywheel also shows how consistent focus connects to the idea of the right people. Because the momentum of the flywheel will naturally excite and motivate employees, Collins suggests that for companies without this kind of building momentum, there may be no right people for a given company. Again, rightness depends on the match between the company’s passion and the individual’s passion, which suggests that rightness is not any innate quality that some people have and others lack.
In contrast, Collins and his team found a pattern at the comparison companies that they term the doom loop. These companies often tried to use new programs to motivate employees and jump straight to the breakthrough phase, only to change course when the breakthrough didn’t occur. This lack of consistency prevented these companies from building up the slow momentum that the flywheel requires. At the same time, they frequently brought on new leaders or acquisitions that usually hindered momentum rather than increasing it. Collins notes that a major contrast between the two sets of companies is that good-to-great companies made acquisitions after defining Hedgehog Concepts and creating momentum with the flywheel, while comparison companies tried (unsuccessfully) to use acquisitions to create momentum.
The doom loops of the comparison companies demonstrate the impossibility of achieving greatness without focus in both thought and action. Again, big ideas and big moves do not equal big success; the comparison companies show that starting small and remaining consistent is much more effective. This section also builds on the idea that the right people don’t need to be motivated externally, while the wrong people will remain unmotivated no matter how hard the company tries to change them.
Collins zooms out on the idea of the flywheel to suggest that this model brings together the two key concepts of consistency and coherence. The flywheel shows that each of the good-to-great characteristics that Collins identifies throughout the book must work together in a coherent whole, wherein the total is more than the sum of the parts. Through consistently applying each of the components in concert with each other, momentum builds and change occurs. Collins argues that by bringing together consistency and coherence with discipline over time, breakthrough can and will occur for any company or organization.
In addition to highlighting how importance consistency is, this broad view of the flywheel also expands on the idea of duality that Collins develops throughout. For the entire good-to-great system to work, all of the components—more than just two, in this case—must exist at once and balance each other out. As in the previous discussions of duality, there is no single right answer for achieving greatness; instead, it depends on the interaction of many simultaneous right answers.