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Good to Great

Five years of research. That’s the amount of time Jim Collins and his team dedicated to their latest accomplishment, Good to Great. The purpose of their research was to study eleven companies that showed a long history of average or poor results, and then made a sudden leap to “greatness,” as defined by extremely high results, sustained over a significant period of time. While rich with references, interview anecdotes, and detailed analyses, Good to Great manages to read easily and engagingly. It provides a refreshingly human look at the world of large corporations.

As so many of us tend to believe, Collins’ team began their research under the preconceived notion that there would most likely be one “groundbreaking discovery” or massive change in operating procedure to claim responsibility for the success of the studied companies. Instead, it is undeniably evident that the “sudden” success, as well as the sustainability of that success, was rooted in simple, well-thought out goals and cultures of almost neurotic discipline.

The Big Idea

Choose Greatness.  Stay Focused.

What becomes abundantly clear in reading Good to Great is that there is no secret, no “right timing,” or “good luck” that was singlehandedly responsible for the success experienced by any of the companies analyzed in this book. Instead, Collins and his team present, with great clarity and articulation, that the “good to great” companies deliberately defined the correct path for themselves and then systematically changed their behaviors and activities to ones that complemented their core values. Repeated over time, these activities led them to great success. In essence, they chose greatness by:

1. Defining goals that they fundamentally believed in, and

2. Working consistently towards those goals, while disregarding all opportunities that were not in line with the beliefs that led them to those goals in the first place.

Insight #1

Find and Embrace your “Hedgehog Concept”

Whether you’re in management launching a new campaign, a recent graduate looking to start a career, or an entrepreneur planning a business (or taking your existing business to the next level), understanding the Hedgehog Concept can be incredibly powerful.

In explaining the Hedgehog Concept, Collins references Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox (Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, 1993). The concept arises from the story of a fox who is clever and cunning, and able to devise 1,001 clever plans on how to capture and eat a hedgehog. No matter which plan the fox tries, however, the hedgehog’s one plan of action – namely to roll into a ball of spikes – is always victorious.  The fox spends valuable time and energy devising new plans, while the hedgehog, having already determined its most appropriate course of action, is free to go about its business without worry of the fox capturing it, regardless of how much smarter or faster the fox may be.

It may seem like a silly story, but at its root, the Hedgehog Concept implies that there is one activity or purpose for you that makes more sense than any other. Understanding what your Hedgehog Concept is, and working within its guidelines is an absolutely critical part of planning to be world class.

Here is Collins’ plan on how to define your own Hedgehog Concept:

Ask yourself three questions:

1. What skills or talents do you have that could be considered world class? In other words, what do you inherently believe you could be world class at?

2. Could you be paid well to do it?

3. Is it the kind of work that you would be excited to wake up for in the morning?

It’s important to realize that you need to be working within all three circles in order to become truly world class at anything. No matter how much money you make doing something, if you’re not passionate about the work, you will never become great at it, simply because other activities or pursuits will inevitably distract you. Alternatively, you can have all the passion in the world for something you are extremely good at, but if there is no potential for income, you can have a lot of fun, but never be truly great, as financial pressures will inevitably wear away at you.

Insight #2

Have a “Stop Doing” List

Many of us have a ‘to do’ list; a list of all the things we want to accomplish in a certain period of time. In light of the Hedgehog Concept described above, I encourage you to evaluate that list with a critical eye – what activities are on that list that are not in line with your core values? Understanding, of course, that everyone has “maintenance tasks,” (those responsibilities that are necessary, if not particularly motivating), I suggest you comb through your list and look for the larger, more self-directed tasks, then ask yourself the challenging question of whether this task will move you closer to, or further from, the goal sitting at the centre of your Hedgehog Concept.  There’s a saying in the film industry that I love:

“It’s not the time to take the takes that takes the time, it’s the time between the takes that takes the time.”

Read it over a few times, it makes sense I promise. And it’s true too – it’s not typically the required time of the productive activities that is unmanageable, but rather it’s all the little distractions that occupy our time and hold us back from accomplishing what we really want. As such, I encourage you to create, keep, and reference regularly, a “Stop Doing” list.  On this list would be all the activities in your daily life that unnecessarily distract you from your purpose or, worse yet, move you in a direction contrary to the idea at the centre of your Hedgehog Concept. Keep the list with you during the day, and when you find yourself doing something in conflict with your key purpose, stop doing it and put it on your list. It won’t always be easy. As Collins clearly states on page 136, “It takes discipline to say ‘No, thank you” to big opportunities. That fact that something is a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” is irrelevant if it doesn’t fit within the three circles.”

Having a Hedgehog Concept and the discipline to work squarely within its guidelines, will take you a long way in achieving greatness.

Steam Whistle Brewery, a micro brewery located in Toronto, Ontario, has a great slogan – “Do one thing really, really well.” Jim Collins’ book Good to Great consists of a tremendous amount of research, translated into seven clearly defined key traits as represented in all eleven companies that made the leap from “good” to “great”.  It’s a great book, worth adding to your library, with all seven points being interesting and valid. The underlying theme to all the successful companies seems to be simple – believe in what you’re doing and work diligently at doing it “really, really well”. I encourage you keep the Hedgehog Concept in mind while you work to find your own purpose. Once you find it, work hard – work confidently – knowing you are moving ever closer to your own brand of greatness.

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Chris Taylor

ABOUT Chris Taylor

Founder of Actionable Books, Chris Taylor is a writer, entrepreneur and speaker. He spends his daylight hours helping consultants and employees alike find meaning in their work and discover rich team relationships through his company, Actionablebooks...
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