Good to Great – “Disciplined Action”

This is the fifth and final post from my recap of Jim Collins’ 2001 book, Good to Great. The focus is on Disciplined Action. It is the last of the three major concepts, joining Disciplined People and Disciplined Thought.

The major image that the book uses for Disciplined Action is the flywheel. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, it’s a rotating wheel, typically very heavy. Once it has started rotating, its great mass keeps it rotating smoothly. Old-fashioned grinding wheels are an application of the flywheel.

Picture a giant stone wheel, perhaps a dozen feet in diameter. The author creates the idea of people working together putting effort into starting this massive wheel rotating. It can take considerable effort to rotate it a few inches. But, the next bit of effort may rotate it a dozen inches. Then a quarter-turn. Once it is spinning, relatively little effort is required to keep it moving or even speeding up. Most of the effort comes at the beginning.

The obvious analogy is that it takes discipline to keep up the effort at the beginning of a business strategy, knowing that the wheel is barely moving. However, the effort is rewarded if you keep it up. If you are falsely discouraged and give up, the wheel stops and you have to start over again. Organizations that jump from strategy to strategy spend all of their effort starting that flywheel moving, time after time.

The other realization that they drew from their interviews is that the great companies could never point to their “breakthrough” where they became great companies. They always indicated that they just got to work and eventually the success was there. As with the flywheel, there was never a point where the flywheel suddenly started moving on its own. The first inch of movement after a lot of effort doesn’t seem like a breakthrough. Nor does the next 6 inches. Eventually, you simply realize that it’s moving on its own.

The last major idea in the book relates to technology. The book points out that technology is an accelerator to a hedgehog concept … but it can never be the hedgehog concept (see my earlier post describing the hedgehog concept). If technology were the central concept it could be easily leap-frogged by others. Technology should continually reinforce an unchanging hedgehog concept. This means that technology can always be viewed as simply another supporting tool that can be easily swapped out as better tools become available to support the hedgehog concept. The technology is not, itself, the focus.

Thanks for reading these 5 posts recapping Good to Great. I hope you have found them useful. You can benefit from this very easy-to-read book and the simplicity of their ideas.Others have criticized it for its perceived over-simplicity and the fact that a few of its “great” companies have fallen on hard times. Such criticism misses the point entirely. This book delivers ideas to help you become a great company. It’s up to you, once greatness is achieved, to keep these lessons fresh and remain a great company.

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