In keeping with Jim Collins’s emphasis on simple, comprehensible keys to success, the idea of narrow focus and consistent application of that focus comes up throughout the book. For Collins, these straightforward concepts are not limiting or small-minded; rather, they are the necessary foundational structures that allow for the complexities of true greatness to blossom. According to Collins’s model of greatness, small ideas and actions are necessary for big success.
The idea of the Hedgehog Concept is perhaps the clearest summation of Collins’s emphasis on focus and consistency. Much as a hedgehog has just one simple, consistently applied way of defending itself that allows it to survive nearly any attack, companies with clear, focused Hedgehog Concepts stick to one guiding principle that they can carry out better than anyone else. Whereas conventional wisdom often values diversification and expansion for its own sake, Collins finds that good-to-great companies often turned down opportunities for expansion and even eliminated aspects of their core businesses once they found that those aspects did not fit their Hedgehog Concept. Collins offers example after example of companies that became more successful only after developing more focused goals.
In addition to defining their Hedgehog Concepts clearly, the good-to-great companies distinguished themselves by adhering to those ideas with immense consistency. For example, one unsustained comparison, the toy company Hasbro, achieved greatness with a focused Hedgehog Concept but did not stick to that concept over time. Without long-term consistency, Hasbro could not remain a great company. Through examples like these, Collins illustrates the point that change, action, and bravado are only useful when they are based on a foundation of focus and consistency.
Similarly, the “culture of discipline” that Collins and his team identify as a key factor in sustained greatness does not depend on grand gestures or elaborate restructurings for their own sake. Rather, it depends on simple, clearly directed actions on the parts of everyone involved, from CEOs to factory workers. Collins argues that clear focus leads to attention to detail, and that the cumulative effect of these many small, seemingly boring actions is what leads to success on a grand scale. Equally important is the idea that this discipline must come from every member of a team, not just the leadership. Otherwise, the company runs the risk of being motivated by tyranny rather than teamwork, in which individuals make decisions based on fear of retribution rather than understanding of their purpose. According to Collins, tyrannical leadership serves to distract from focused action rather than promote it. Again, the dramatic influence of dynamic leader is unimportant compared to simplicity and single-mindedness.
Finally, Collins indicates that remaining focused and consistent at every level of a company can ultimately lead to a large-scale sense of momentum that transcends the small acts that created it. He terms this coherent system of effort and momentum “the flywheel,” using the analogy of a gigantic wheel that requires years of small pushes to get moving but, once moving, remains powered by its own enormous weight. The image of the flywheel provides a concrete model for the crucial relationship between small-scale, repeated actions and large-scale success. Collins emphasizes that the many years of building up energy within the flywheel will likely seem unremarkable or even boring. This process, he notes, rarely gets media attention or industry acclaim. However, it is nonetheless the mechanism by which companies can eventually achieve great, attention-getting breakthroughs. In order to reach the breakthrough point, companies must embrace the value of purposeful repetition that may seem dull from the outside. Again, for Collins, thinking small and thinking big are two equally important sides of the same coin.
Focus and Consistency ThemeTracker
Focus and Consistency Quotes in Good to Great
The best answer I can give is that it was an iterative process of looping back and forth, developing ideas and testing them against the data, revising the ideas, building a framework, seeing it break under the weight of evidence, and rebuilding it yet again. That process was repeated over and over, until everything hung together in a coherent framework of concepts.
If you have the right executives on the bus, they will do everything in their power to build a great company, not because of what they will “get” for it, but because they simply cannot imagine settling for anything less. Their moral code requires excellence for its own sake, and you’re no more likely to change that with a compensation package than you’re likely to affect whether they breathe. The good-to-great companies understood a simple truth: The right people will do the right things and deliver the best results they’re capable of, regardless of the incentive system.
A&P then began a pattern of lurching from one strategy to another, always looking for a single-stroke solution to its problems. It held pep rallies, launched programs, grabbed fads, fired CEOs, hired CEOs, and fired them yet again. It launched what one industry observer called a “scorched earth policy,” a radical price-cutting strategy to build market share, but never dealt with the basic fact that customers wanted not lower prices, but different stores.
Putting aside their egos, the Wells Fargo team pulled the plug on the vast majority of its international operations, accepting the truth that it could not be better than Citicorp in global banking. Wells Fargo then turned its attention to what it could be the best in the world at: running a bank like a business, with a focus on the western United States. That’s it. That was the essence of the Hedgehog Concept that turned Wells Fargo from a mediocre Citicorp wanna-be to one of the best-performing banks in the world.
It may seem odd to talk about something as soft and fuzzy as “passion” as an integral part of a strategic framework. But throughout the good-to-great companies, passion became a key part of the Hedgehog Concept. You can’t manufacture passion or “motivate” people to feel passionate. You can only discover what ignites your passion and the passions of those around you.
Does every organization have a Hedgehog Concept to discover? What if you wake up, look around with brutal honesty, and conclude: “We’re not the best at anything, and we never have been.” Therein lies one of the most exciting aspects of the entire study. In the majority of cases, the good-to-great companies were not the best in the world at anything and showed no prospects of becoming so. Infused with the Stockdale Paradox … every good-to-great company, no matter how awful at the start of the process, prevailed in its search for a Hedgehog Concept.
This creative duality ran through every aspect of Abbott during the transition era, woven into the very fabric of the corporate culture. On the one hand, Abbott recruited entrepreneurial leaders and gave them the freedom to determine the best path to achieving their objectives. On the other hand, individuals had to commit fully to the Abbott system and were held rigorously accountable for their objectives. They had freedom, but within a framework.
I realize that it’s a bizarre analogy. But in a sense, the good-to-great companies became like David Scott. Much of the answer to the question of “good to great” lies in the discipline to do whatever it takes to become the best within carefully selected arenas and then to seek continual improvement from there. It’s really just that simple. And it’s really just that difficult.
Inequality still runs rampant in most business corporations. I’m referring now to the hierarchical inequality which legitimizes and institutionalizes the principle of “We” vs. “They.” … The people at the top of the corporate hierarchy grant themselves privilege after privilege, flaunt those privileges before the men and women who do the real work, then wonder why employees are unmoved by management’s invocations to cut costs and boost profitability … When I think of the millions of dollars spent by people at the top of the management hierarchy on efforts to motivate people who are continually put down by that hierarchy, I can only shake my head in wonder.
Walgreens didn’t adopt all of this advanced technology just for the sake of advanced technology or in fearful reaction to falling behind. No, it used technology as a tool to accelerate momentum after hitting breakthrough, and tied technology directly to its Hedgehog Concept of convenient drugstores increasing profit per customer visit.
Indeed, the big point of this chapter is not about technology per se. No technology, no matter how amazing—not computers, not telecommunications, not robotics, not the Internet—can by itself ignite a shift from good to great.
But the good-to-great executives simply could not pinpoint a single key event or moment in time that exemplified the transition. Frequently, they chafed against the whole idea of allocating points and prioritizing factors. In every good-to-great company, at least one of the interviewees gave an unprompted admonishment, saying something along the lines of, “Look, you can’t dissect this thing into a series of nice little boxes and factors, or identify the moment of ‘Aha!’ or the ‘one big thing.’ It was a whole bunch of interlocking pieces that built one upon another.”
Although it may have looked like a single-stroke breakthrough to those peering in from the outside, it was anything but that to the people experiencing the transformation from within. Rather, it was a quiet, deliberate process of figuring out what needed to be done to create the best future results and then simply taking those steps, one after the other, turn by turn of the flywheel. After pushing on that flywheel in a consistent direction over an extended period of time, they’d inevitably hit a point of breakthrough.
Consider Kroger. How do you get a company of over 50,000 people—cashiers, baggers, shelf stockers, produce washers, and so forth—to embrace a radical new strategy that will eventually change virtually every aspect of how the company builds and runs grocery stores? The answer is that you don’t. Not in one big event or program, anyway.
Perhaps your quest to be part of building something great will not fall in your business life. But find it somewhere. If not in corporate life, then perhaps in making your church great. If not there, then perhaps a nonprofit, or a community organization, or a class you teach. Get involved in something that you care so much about that you want to make it the greatest it can possibly be, not because of what you will get, but just because it can be done.