Column: Great Skis, Great Skiing, to Great Organizations… Part 1

Great Skis, Great Skiing, to Great Organizations – From Personal Development to Organizational Development Part I

Column by ELENA YANG

I have been working on four books for the past few weeks; two are about personal development and the other two are about organizations (see listing below.)

The overlapping messages are generally about living with passion, learning to release creative energy, staying disciplined and having fun.

On a recent skiing trip, they began to meld together for me. So, this entry is both personal and organizational.

  • “The Art of Possibility” by Rosamund Stone Zander & Benjamin Zander
  • “Core Transformation” by Connirae Andreas & Tamara Andreas
  • “Creativity in Business” by Michael Ray & Rochelle Myers
  • “Good to Great” and “Good to Great and the Social Sectors” by Jim Collins

My son had been a ski patroller since he qualified at age 14. He is a great skier, and his latest-technology skis just make him look more awesome! 

He’s passionate about the sport, and he finds tremendous fulfillment in his patrolling knowledge and practices. Before I acquired my current skis, I demoed the same brand of rocker style of skis.

My dismay that the technology seemed to have overtaken my skills lasted about 10 seconds, then was rendered pointless by the joy of the new level of skiing.

I learned how to ski when I was in my mid-20s, and the first few years’ ski trips were the typical young working professional’s once-a-year few days of fun punctuated by 360 days of regress. 

My skiing ability didn’t get the momentum needed for steady progress till we moved to New Mexico in 2002. Now, with a mountain that is only 20 minutes away, I enjoy the learning curve that 20-to-30-plus-skiing-days-a-season can offer. 

But I still have anxiety at times and get tense on my skis; I can tell it when my thighs hurt and I get exhausted quickly. Yet whenever I do let go, there is a buzz in my spirit. The current skis allowed me to soar; the confidence they gave me took me to a new high. 

Every so often, I reason that at my age, I should willingly accept whatever my level is. Then, restlessness creeps in and I have to push myself, either through some lessons or different skis. 

I didn’t used to even consider skiing on moguls; they looked terrifying and just looking would rattle my knees. Then, I was introduced to the then new technology of parabolic/shaped skis.  All of a sudden, I found myself seeking out moguls and my knees were just fine. 

Jump, now, to Jim Collins’ first sentence in his Good to Great: “Good is the enemy of great.” Of course, I can be content with good skiing, restlessness aside; I alone am affected by the level of my skills. Organizations affect, and are affected by, many more people. 

Mr. Collins lays out seven principles for good organizations to become great: 

  • Level 5 leadership, which I had discussed in the past;
  • First who…then what;
  • Confront the brutal facts;
  • The hedgehog concept;
  • A cultural of discipline;
  • Technology accelerators; and
  • The flywheel and the doom loop. 

Some of these are rather self-explanatory (Mr. Collins’ book provides ample examples.)

I will briefly review the “hedgehog” (in today’s space) and “flywheel” concepts (for next week.)

The hedgehog looks inoffensive and endearing, till the quills stick out to prick you. Its grounded steadiness (it is rather short!), combined with its defensive quills, makes the creature a formidable opponent against otherwise cunning predators, such as a fox. 

So, a company that might offer a burst of brilliant cunning strategy isn’t likely to grow its business steadily even if it might capture a significant market share for a little while. 

Mr. Collins further develops the hedgehog concept into three overlapping circles: what you are deeply passionate about, what you can be the best in the world at, and what drives your economic engine

If my son were to enter the fields of material sciences and engineering, he might do well in making and testing skis!  Metaphorically for organizations, the hedgehog embodies what the organizations are really about at the core, and mustn’t forget. 

It is about what an organization can be, and not about strategy, market position, or goals, which are things an organization sets or does. However, given what I learned from Appreciative Inquiry’s framework, I’d modify the “best in the world at” to “best for” and that little change immediately opens up more possibilities. 

For instance, Southwest Airlines does not just aim for on-time performance, low fares, or competent flying, though all are important for an airline and Southwest does them well. 

More importantly, Southwest aims to be good for their customers and potential customers, and that’s why in a troubled industry, Southwest can shine while the other airlines – which may emulate the superficial aspects but don’t act as if they understand what their business can be best for – have continually suffered. 

Have you ever tried to talk to real agents from different airlines? My wait time with Southwest has always been reasonable and at times downright enjoyable (and they give you the option of calling you back!) 

Similarly, Enterprise car rental seems to gather a group of all cheerful and delightful people, which make me always choose them when their prices are comparable with other outfits. As a consumer, you always can tell when an organization is genuinely attentive to your needs.  

One caveat about the concept of core: I think if the organization defines its core too narrowly, for example by a particular product line or a single technology, it limits itself and risks slipping into obsolescence and oblivion. 

It’s not about the quantity of aspects or items composing the core; it’s about the balance between a broad vision under which several possibilities can exist and definitive outcomes on which people can focus.

Nylon brought DuPont tremendous profit especially when nylon was novel and exciting, but in the course of time and competition, nylon became a commodity and its profitability eroded. 

Had DuPont made “nylon” its core, the company would have eroded with it. Instead, the company viewed “engineered materials” as one of many “better things for better living” as its core, and has continued to prosper.

But just because an organization stays true to its core doesn’t guarantee its success; that’s but one step.

Next week, I will focus on “flywheel.”  Till then, 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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