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What Makes Great Companies Work in Uncertain Times

Jim Collins is always an inspiring presenter and his recent live stream presentation, via the Growth Faculty*, did not disappoint. Jim applied the lens of his “Good to Great” thinking to the question, “what makes Great Companies work in uncertain times?”

First Who, then What?

He began of course with his “First Who, then What” message about start with ensuring you have the right people on the bus before deciding where to go.I have noticed that many businesses have recently ‘discovered’ new leaders. They’re the people who may not have had a leadership title but who in challenging times have ‘chosen’ to lead through their actions. Conversely, the reverse has been true, with some people in a leadership position not able to navigate well through uncertainty.

Fire Bullets then Cannonballs

For me Jim’s fifth question was the most important for the current times; “which Bullets and Cannon Balls are you firing…?” His meaning – in times of great uncertainty it is necessary to try a number of initiatives. The ‘Bullets’ in his analogy are those new ideas, some of which land on target and some of which don’t, either way they enable you to calibrate where to aim your ‘Cannonballs.’ As McKinsey’s “Beyond the Hockey Stick” book shows, industry shaking ‘big moves’ are necessary to break out the trap of mediocre performance. Jim Collins’ ‘Cannonballs’ are the bold moves needed to cut through. Making bold moves however, without calibrating (read test and measure), is very high risk.

Following is an overview of all ten themes Jim explored, I know that there will be at least one of the themes that will be relevant to your organisation now.

Jim’s 10 key themes:

  1. Do we have 90% of the right people on the bus?
    Who do we need to get on the bus? Who do we need to get off the bus? and are the key people in the right seats?
    His message is you cannot predict the “what,” given the current pandemic situation and he posits that these things will happen again in the future. So, it’s – First, who, then what? Get the culture right and develop the people, take care of your people, you’ll fly. And be rigorous, not ruthless in this process. Reminds me of that other maxim, “if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.
  2. Confront the Brutal facts – what are they?
    He references The Stockdale Paradox; this is about the General who was a POW in Vietnam and survived and did well – not so his ‘optimistic’ colleagues. How do you hold two perspectives -i.e. maintain the attitude that you will prevail and achieve your big ambition (BHAG) whilst (at the current time) being uncertain as to how that given the brutal facts? This concept of what he calls the genius of the ‘and’ meaning it’s not ‘ah yes but’ rather its ah yes ‘and.’
  3. What are we learning about our hedgehog concept?
    Hedgehog concept is the single thing that drives us. It’s at the intersection of that Venn diagram of:
    – what are we really passionate about,
    – what can we be the best at,
    – what is our economic engine?
    And it’s about asking yourself those tough questions and developing insight from that enquiry and turning that into simplicity. Hedgehog knows one big thing.
  4. The Flywheel – what is the logic of your flywheel?
    Meaning think of your business as a flywheel as in building momentum identify the points around the circle, say of A to F. You know that if you do A, this leads to B which by nature leads to C andon to F which then goes back to A again so this recurring self-fulfilling message that builds momentum, like the flywheel on a steam engine. Does your flywheel now need to change to address current circumstances?
  5. What bullets and cannonballs, do we need to fire?
    This is the test and measure concept. His idea being you calibrate what you need to do through firing bullets which enables you then to fire the cannon i.e. your big moves. “Big moves” are essential at any time – and now maybe you need to be firing more bullets i.e. trying a number of new initiatives -which you calibrate (do they hit the mark) and then choose to amplify (fire a cannonball) or delete.
    Think also of the Beyond the Hockey Stick book from McKinsey, which references the fact that something like only 8% of businesses generated serious profit (beyond the cost of capital over time). What distinguished the successful companies were those that took bold industry leading moves.
  6. Twenty Mile March:
    What disciplined activity must we sustain, increase, change or create in a time of chaos, when the environment around us is out of control?
  7. Maintain your oxygen cannisters.
    The idea there being you know your values, ie what you can be consistent about, even though all around you is inconsistent. He suggests to pay attention to people relationships, and preserve cash and access to capital so that we always need to be prepared for when the bad storms come, because they will again…
  8. How will we prevail?
    Jim’s ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal.’ Does your BHAG need to be adjusted now or re-affirm its position as your North Star?
  9. What is on your stop doing list?
    Simple – what do you need to let go of that no-longer serves you and has become a distraction.
  10. Think how you can be of service?
    To your customers, staff and community…

In the Q&A he spoke more about how to get the right people on the bus –

How do you make sure you got the right people on the bus? Questions to ask yourself:

  1. Are you losing great people / or customers because of this person?
  2. Do you have a values, motivation and a skills fit? If you have got the values and motivation you can train the skills. If you have got the values and the skills only, it’s challenging to build motivation. And if you have got the motivation and the skills and not the values, you’ve got the wrong person.
  3. Relationship to the window and the mirror. I like this one; when problems abound do they say it’s the person in the mirror (i.e. own, or shift responsibility) and when there is success, do they say it’s the person out the window (the team) or do they say it’s the person in the mirror?
  4. Do they see it as a job, or as a “responsibility?”
  5. If you look over time is your confidence up or down on a particular person, is it higher, flat, or is it down?
  6. If they quit tomorrow, how would you feel?

What is a “Key Seat?” There are three criteria for determining this:

  • This person has significant responsibility for hiring, motivating and managing other key people in the organization, so in other words, if that person’s the wrong person it’s a cascading effect, if that person’s right, it’s a cascading effect.
  • If performance in that seat has a disproportionate impact on the business, in other words, that seat has such a monumental impact.
  • If they are in a position where the potential exposure to downside risk is significant.

* This was a live stream event from the Growth Faculty

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